UNTITLED by Diane Arbus. (Aperture: $50; 112 pp.) Those having just a passing familiarity with work by New York artist Diane Arbus tend to think of her as “that sensationalistic photographer who took pictures of freaks and misfits--sort of a forerunner of Joel-Peter Witkin.” In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
An exquisitely sensitive artist who found beauty everywhere she looked, Arbus created images of such profound tenderness and intimacy that one feels intrusive looking at them. Arbus once commented that “a photograph is a secret about a secret,” and undeniably, something went on between she and her subjects far too rarefied and private for most viewers to grasp.
The greater mystery Arbus poses, however, is this: How do we reconcile the deep reverence for human life that’s central to her work with the negligible regard she had for her own--a disregard so complete that it led her to commit suicide in 1971 at the age of 48. This series of portraits of mentally retarded people is what was occupying Arbus in the final three years of her life, so naturally we scrutinize them searching for clues as to what led her down the fateful road she took. The answers are not there.
Composed largely of previously unseen images, “Untitled” is the last of only three books of Arbus’ work (it was preceded by a monograph of her work published the year after her death, and “Diane Arbus: Magazine Work,” out in 1984). Like all her work, these portraits of residents of various ages in several homes for the mentally retarded are unsettling in their savage honesty. And yet, as is always true of Arbus’ work, there’s something oddly uplifting in her insistence on presenting life as she found it.
Arbus admitted that she could be mean when photographing subjects she considered hypocritical or pretentious--like some character out of “Franny and Zooey,” she couldn’t stand phonies--but when it came to the socially disenfranchised, the malformed, the bizarre, she was an angel. “Freaks were born with their trauma,” she once observed. “They’ve already passed their test in life--they’re aristocrats.” She shoots them as if they were, too, foregrounding their emotional state, while treating physical deformities is merely incidental. The unfathomable gulf that separates appearance from substance is the overarching theme of all Arbus’ work, and it’s very much the subject of these intensely moving pictures.