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American Quarterly 57.1 (2005) 207-221
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Bringing out the Dead:
Inside the Arbus Archive
Archives attract us with the possibility that they might contain the forgotten masterpiece or revealing documents overlooked by a previous generation. Until very recently, the career of Diane Arbus has been inoculated against this kind of speculation by an estate that has micromanaged access to and interpretation of her work. Outside of museum collections, Arbus became known through three monographs, Diane Arbus, Diane Arbus: Magazine Work, and Untitled, sleek, restrained volumes with minimal commentary and large expanses of white space.1 In spite of the limited canon made available by these books, Arbus has become one of the most well known of all modern photographers. Although they may not shock viewers as they did during her first museum show in 1971, her photographs of identical twins, midgets, transvestites, and giants still have the capacity to inspire an unforgettable mixture of discomfort and admiration. Add to this the mystique surrounding Arbus's short life and death by suicide, which framed her as a tragic figure doomed by the intensity of her artistic vision. In fall 2003 Arbus returned to the public eye with the opening of two exhibits, Diane Arbus: Family Albums, curated by Anthony W. Lee and John Pultz, and Diane Arbus Revelations, curated by Sandra S. [End Page 207] Philips and Elisabeth Sussman. Together, they present Arbus's life and work as compelling terrain for scholars of American studies. Not only do Arbus's photographs make visible the underworlds and subcultures that have been central to revisionist histories of the 1950s and 1960s, but her legacy, which has been the subject of ongoing debate, should be of interest to critics concerned with the fate of the arts in contemporary American culture.
Arbus's career began in the 1950s as one half of a husband-and-wife team of fashion photographers. When she left the partnership to focus on her own career, she repudiated the aesthetic and social values of the fashion industry. As one of the only women street photographers of her time, she documented the lives of nudists, carnies, strippers, and local eccentrics, and shot portraits of some of the era's most famous personalities. From well-known events and people to those forgotten on the margins of society, her subjects testify to the rapid transformations taking place in midcentury America. Even to those unfamiliar with Arbus's name, her distinctive style is recognizable: the snapshot aesthetic; the large, square format; and the signature uneven black border would have a profound influence on the formal features of modern photography. And many who are unfamiliar with the work are aware of the legend of Diane Arbus. Like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, other famous suicidal women artists of her generation, Arbus rose to posthumous celebrity based as much on the mythology surrounding her life as on the merits of her photography. The notorious silence of those managing her estate only compounded the fascination of fans and critics, who tended either to focus explicitly on formal analysis of Arbus's published work or to posit biographical connections between the photographs and the artist's own psychological turmoil.
The long silence was finally broken by Family Albums and Revelations, the first major exhibits of Arbus's photography since a 1972 retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Each is accompanied by a book of photographs containing new essays about her life and work. Almost diametrically opposed in scope and intention...