Born to a wealthy Jewish-American family, Diane Arbus (1923–1971) was raised in affluent surroundings in New York City. Unlike her famous brother, the poet Howard Nemerov, she never attended college. At age 18 she married the aspiring photographer and actor Allan Arbus, and during the next twenty years the couple worked as professional photographers for fashion magazines and advertisers, including Russek’s Fifth Avenue, the chic department store owned by Arbus’s father.
As her marriage began to crumble and her husband more seriously pursued acting, Arbus continued working for fashion and commercial clients but also turned to a different kind of photography. Between 1955 and 1957, she studied with Lisette Model and began to develop a penetrating documentary vision, producing pictures very unlike the work she was doing for advertisers. By the 1960s, she had gained a reputation as a photographer of New York’s many subcultures. By 1967, her pictures were so admired among the New York cognoscenti that she was one of the three photographers invited to participate in the Museum of Modern Art’sNew Documents show. It launched her international reputation and career.
What was Arbus’s documentary vision? In 1968, three years before her suicide, Arbus wrote that she was compiling her photographs into a “family album,” likening it to a “Noah’s ark” and perhaps imagining in it the people who might be remembered and saved in the aftermath of the tumultuous 1960s. “Family,” in Arbus’s sense, consisted of people held together by all sorts of bonds, some traditional and others alternative, and deserving of special attention.
This exhibition re-examines Arbus’s never-completed project and offers a glimpse into what such an album might have looked like. It assembles pictures of various kinds of families and family members and offers Arbus’s critical, sometimes humorous, often sympathetic viewing of mothers, fathers, children, and partners. In addition, it includes the contact sheets for six different portrait sessions and reveals Arbus’s working methods and selection process as she aimed to find appropriate subjects for her ark. In all, Diane Arbus: Family Albums proposes a new way to understand the concerns and goals of this most important American photographer.
Arbus took a wide range of pictures of mothers, a key figure in most family albums. With good reason: mothers help secure the notion of “family,” and by their mere presence cohere the many disparate photographs that make up an album. The women Arbus photo-graphed in the 1960s include some whose notoriety derived from their status as mothers: Marguerite Oswald, the mother of Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin of President John F. Kennedy, and Madalyn Murray, the petitioner who successfully challenged compulsory school prayer on behalf of her son.
In the case of Murray, Arbus explored the famed atheist’s relationship with her two sons and to the home in which they lived, photographing Murray on a big sofa, in her kitchen, living room, bedroom, and outside her front door. These pictures explored Murray’s role as a mother and perhaps even suggested how the small house became a refuge for her and her family, especially when they were besieged by the local and national press.
Other “mother” pictures interrogated the matriarchal demeanor, like that of Flora Knapp Dickinson, an Honorary Regent of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and Mrs. T. Charlton Henry, the noted socialite and fashion luminary. Still other photographs—of the stripper Blaze Starr, the sexy film star Mae West, the wartime personality Tokyo Rose—explored how women, not normally associated with motherhood could appear more maternal in their own domestic settings.
What constituted fatherhood in the 1960s? Arbus’s many pictures of fathers, patriarchs, and famous men were made when this question was being regularly asked. Typical of Arbus’s interests and sensibilities as a photographer, she sought out men whose claims on fatherhood derived from different forms of authority and public presence. Representative father figures included Bennett Cerf, president of the publishing firm Random House; Donald Gatch, a southern physician whose causes were receiving national attention; the midget Andrew Ratoucheff, who was married five times and performed onstage as, alternately, Marilyn Monroe and Maurice Chevalier; and the writer Norman Mailer.
The mother of two young girls, Arbus was confronted daily with the needs, experiences, and desires of children. In addition, she often photographed children, buttoned in the latest fashions, for magazine ads and spent hours dressing and posing them for her camera. As sitters, they provided Arbus with an especially provocative and challenging subject, at once filled with their own visions and understandings of a world in transition, and yet also serving as receptacles for the longings and dreams of others.
Partnership is key to the bonds that hold families together, but Arbus’s desire to interrogate and chart the changing family led her to photograph several unusual sets of partners: a married couple who lived as nudists, a Santa Claus with his “real” wife in his “real” home, and Lillian and Dorothy Gish, the two deeply attached sisters who earlier in their lives had been silent film stars.
Perhaps the most difficult, yet key, photographs for Arbus’s album were images of families whose bonds were more traditional. Held together by marriage, blood, and law, these kinds of families fell under scrutiny and were often dismissed as anachronistic by the countercultures and alternative collectives of the 1960s. With her camera, Arbus asked which aspects of these more traditional families could survive. What bonds of affection could remain intact? What forms of community could be gleaned from them? Or, conversely, what final vestiges of an earlier family life needed farewell?
One set of previously unknown family photographs reveals how Arbus worked through these questions. In late 1969, Arbus photographed the Matthaei family in their New York townhouse. Konrad Matthaei was a well-known television actor and theater owner, and his family—surrounded by celebrity and media attention—was just the sort to which Arbus was often drawn. For two days, she followed the family around the townhouse, recording meals, family arriving for holiday dinner, the children playing with new toys. Arbus removed obstructing objects and positioned herself and her subjects carefully, taking an astonishing 322 photographs, roughly one every two minutes. The contact sheets from this session, as well as others presented in the exhibition, provide insight into Arbus’s methods and choices as she worked toward the idea of “family album.”