Reentering the world of Diane Arbus

Times Staff Writer

"HOW could she?" viewers ask themselves when they encounter Diane Arbus' archetypal photographs. But even as they wince and flinch, they can't take their eyes off her images of normal people turned strange and strange people turned normal.

There's something appallingly horrific about ordinary women with way too much makeup and helmets of teased, sprayed hair who have gone to a lot of trouble to look like monsters. And there's something heartbreakingly poignant about mentally retarded youngsters at play in a meadow or a Jewish giant towering over his parents in their tacky little living room.

Born in 1923 to a wealthy New York department store family but fascinated by those who lived outside her privileged realm, Arbus photographed middle-class families, sunbathing couples, beauty queens well past their prime, twins and young patriots. More famously, she also took pictures of carnival freaks, circus performers, strippers, Russian midgets, transvestites and nudists. What's repulsive and what's attractive get all mixed up in her work. But in the end, the question isn't so much how she persuaded her subjects to face her camera as how she dared to expose them once she had gained access.

Arbus was hailed as a brilliant chronicler of the human condition and reviled for taking cruel advantage of her subjects even before she committed suicide in 1971, at 48. But a 1972 retrospective exhibition of her work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York set off a storm of controversy in the press. Doon Arbus, the elder of the artist's two daughters and executor of her estate, was so affronted by interpretations of her mother's work and tales of her life that she cut off access to the estate.

But the 30-year silence has ended. An international traveling retrospective exhibition, "Diane Arbus: Revelations" -- boasting "all of the artist's iconic photographs as well as many that have never been publicly exhibited" -- opened last weekend at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and continues through Feb. 8. It will appear at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Feb. 29 to May 31, then go to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston; the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany; the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

The lavish book accompanying the show offers 200 reproductions; an essay by Sandra S. Phillips, senior curator of photography at SFMoMA; and a discussion of the artist's techniques by her authorized printer, Neil Selkirk. Probably most intriguing for Arbus watchers is an extensive illustrated chronology. Compiled by Doon Arbus and Elisabeth Sussman, guest curator of the show, it includes many excerpts of the artist's writings and ends with the medical report from her autopsy.

The book and the exhibition are major events in the worlds of art, photography and publishing. Advance publicity created a buzz months ago. Now that the show has opened, critics are beginning to weigh in. A new discourse about Arbus has started, and it will probably go on for years. But the artist will have the last word, in her pictures.

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