Sunday, January 30, 2011

Beaumont Newhall

Beaumont Newhall Biography from the Scheinbaum & Russek, Ltd. Gallery:

His personal photographic work was unveiled after his retirement from the museum world. Newhall's photographs and writings chronicled his life and work throughout his extensive career as a photograph historian. He was greatly influenced by the German Expressionist movement, and his genius for composition is evident in his intimate portraits and architectural studies.

Ansel Adams, in his introduction to "In Plain Sight," wrote that "Beaumont Newhall's photographs express great breadth of vision and deep respect for his medium." Newhall once said, "To me it is a constant source of wonder that the world becomes transformed through the finder of my camera."

Beaumont Newhall Biography from the Biographical Dictionary of Historical Scholars, Museum Professionals and Academic Historians of Art:

First curator of photography, Museum of Modern Art, New York.  Newhall's father was Herbert William Newhall (1858-1933), a medical doctor, and his mother was Alice Lilia Davis (Newhall) (1865-1940). He graduated cum laude in art history from Harvard University in 1930, proceeding directly for his master's degree in 1931. In graduate school, he attended the famous museum course by Paul J. Sachs and came into contact with Alfred H. Barr, Jr., then teaching classes at Wellesley.
He joined the Philadelphia Museum of Art as a lecturer 1931 moving to the Metropolitan Museum of Art library (where he was dismissed) and then as an assistant in the department of decorative arts under James Rorimer. He returned to graduate study at Harvard to complete his Ph.D., studying also at the Institut d'Art et d'Archeologie, University of Paris, in 1933, and the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, in 1934. Newhall failed his oral examinations, however, and abandoned the doctorate.
In 1935 Henry-Russell Hitchcock recommended Newhall to Barr to replace Iris Barry (1895-1969) as the librarian at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.  Barr was little interested in his bookmanship, rather it wast Newhall's knowledge of photography he prized, hoping the Museum would mount exhibitions of that medium.  Newhall married Nancy Wynne Parker (1908-1974) in 1936, whose writing skills would avail him his whole life. At Barr's rather informal request, Newhall mounted a survey exhibition of photography for the Museum in 1937, "Photography, 1839- 1937."  The 800-work exhibition toured the country and the catalog for the show became a staple for the history of photography.  After it sold out, Newhall reissued it as A Short Critical History of Photography. Newhall mounted two further ground-breaking shows at MoMA immediately thereafter, one on Walker Evans and a third, with the help of Lincoln Kirstein (1907-1996), on Cartier-Bresson.
Now the leading figure in the history of photography, Newhall was appointed MoMA's first curator of photography by Barr in 1940, without reduction of his librarian duties (!). In 1942 he enlisted in the Army Air Forces to fight in World War II; his wife ran the Department in his absence.  He was assigned to the European theater rising to the rank of major.  After discharge in 1945 he returned to the Museum.
Ironically, Newhall's treatment of photography as high art rankled the museum's board of trustees, who accepted public criticism that the Museum was turning a popular medium into an avenue of snobbery.  He was a lecturer at Black Mountain College, Black Mountain, NC, between 1946 and 1948. When the photographer Edward Steichen was hired to head the Department in 1947, Newhall resigned.  He secured a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship in 1947 to revise his Critical History book. Newhall joined the George Eastman House, (today, the International Museum of Photography), Rochester, NY, as curator in 1948.  His revised photography book appeared in 1949 as The History of Photography, from 1839 to the Present Day.  Newhall rose to director of the Eastman House in 1958, becoming a trustee beginning 1962. An ambitious publications schedule proved Newhall as a scholar.  He retired as director in 1971.
After retirement, Newhall lectured first as a visiting professor and then professor at the University of New Mexico beginning in 1971. He lectured at the Rochester Institute of Technology from 1956 to 1968.  After his wife was killed in a rafting accident in 1974 Newhall married Christi Yates Weston in 1975.   A second Guggenheim was awarded to him in 1975.  Harvard University  conferred a D. Art on him in 1978. He delivered the Bromsen lecture for the Boston Public Library in 1980.  A third edition of his History appeared in 1982. He retired from New Mexico as professor emeritus in 1984 to be a MacArthur Foundation fellow, 1984-1989.He divorced Weston in 1985.  Newhall suffered a stroke in 1993 and died from complications. His papers are kept at the  Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA.
Newhall was the first photo historian to treat the history of photography from other than a technical-development perspective (Hamber). He codified the history of photography for most Americans.  Formalist in his training, he was criticized in later years for not opening his criteria to more modern sensibilities.  However, Newhall was among the earliest to incorporate Mathew Brady's Civil War images as photography of the highest merit.  Newhall at MoMA presented photography as an art form.  Although MoMA had mounted photography shows before his arrival, Newhall's "Photography 1839-1937" show seen in the context of the other three seminal exhibitions of the era, Barr's "Cubism and Abstract Art" (1936), "Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism" (1936) and the Bauhaus retrospective (1938), comprise the four great didactic exhibitions upon which the Museum's reputation as the pre-eminent interpreter of modern art was built (Phillips). Newhall himself objected to being called "the Father of this History of Photography" (Newhall 1986) though his writing can be considered little less. LS

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Dora Maar

Dora Maar Obituary and Biography by Alan Riding in the New York Times:

Dora Maar, the photographer and painter who was Picasso's lover and the principal model for many of his so-called weeping women portraits in the late 1930's and early 40's, died this month (July, 1997) in her Left Bank apartment. She was 89.

Le Monde reported that she died on July 16.

Miss Maar was a recognized photographer and a well-known figure in Surrealist circles when she met Picasso at Les Deux Magots, the St.-Germain-des-Pres cafe, in 1936. During the decade that followed she also exercised considerable political influence over the artist, persuading him to join the French Communist Party in October 1944.

But after Picasso ended their relationship, replacing her with Francoise Gilot as a lover and muse, she suffered frequent bouts of depression and opted increasingly for a life of reclusion, living in the shadow of the image Picasso had created for her. ''I could never see her, never imagine her, except crying,'' he is said to have remarked.

Miss Maar, whose real name was Theodora Markovic, was born in Tours, France, on Nov. 22, 1907, and spent her childhood in Argentina, where her father, a foreign-born architect, was working. Arriving in Paris around 1925, the beautiful dark-haired young woman was drawn into the world of photography, first as a model for Man Ray and others and then as a photographer.

In the 1930's, with Andre Breton and Georges Bataille urging her into the Surrealist movement and encouraging her to paint, she joined the Union of Intellectuals Against Fascism and was active in other anti-Fascist groups. After meeting Picasso, she helped him set up his studio at 7 Rue des Grands-Augustins, where in 1937 he painted ''Guernica,'' a process she recorded in photographs.

Throughout their nine-year affair, Picasso continued his relationship with his longtime mistress, Marie-Therese Walter, with the two women at times living together and on at least one occasion posing together for him. As Miss Maar's stormy relationship with Picasso deteriorated, she was increasingly portrayed in a cruel and tragic light. As a model for major works, though, she was matched in importance only by the artist's last wife, Jacqueline Roque.

Among well-known portraits of Miss Maar are ''Weeping Woman,'' ''Woman Reclining With a Book,'' ''Woman Combing her Hair,'' ''Bust of a Seated Woman'' and many others that carry her name.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Alexander Rodchenko

Alexander Rodchenko (1891 – 1956) was a Russian artist, sculptor, photographer and graphic designer. He was one of the founders of constructivism and Russian design.

Rodchenko was one of the most versatile Constructivist and Productivist artists to emerge after the Russian Revolution. He worked as a painter and graphic designer before turning to photomontage and photography. His photography was socially engaged, formally innovative, and opposed to a painterly aesthetic. Concerned with the need for analytical-documentary photo series, he often shot his subjects from odd angles -- usually high above or below -- to shock the viewer and to postpone recognition. He wrote: “One has to take several different shots of a subject, from different points of view and in different situations, as if one examined it in the round rather than looked through the same key-hole again and again.”

Rodchenko was born in St. Petersburg to a working class family. His family moved to Kazan in 1909, after the death of his father, at which point he studied at the Kazan School of Art under Nikolai Feshin and Georgii Medvedev, and at the Stroganov Institute in Moscow. In 1921 he became a member of the Productivist group, which advocated the incorporation of art into everyday life. He gave up painting in order to concentrate on graphic design for posters, books, and films. He was deeply influenced by the ideas and practice of the filmmaker Dziga Vertov, with whom he worked intensively in 1922.

Impressed by the photomontage of the German Dadaists, Rodchenko began his own experiments in the medium, first employing found images in 1923, and from 1924 on shooting his own photographs as well. His first published photomontage illustrated Mayakovsky’s poem, “About This,” in 1923.

From 1923 to 1928 Rodchenko collaborated closely with Mayakovsky (of whom he took several striking portraits) on the design and layout of LEF and Novy LEF, the publications of Constructivist artists. Many of his photographs appeared in or were used as covers for these journals. His images eliminated unnecessary detail, emphasized dynamic diagonal composition, and were concerned with the placement and movement of objects in space.

Throughout the 1920s Rodchenko’s work was very abstract. In the 1930s, with the changing Party guidelines governing artistic practice, he concentrated on sports photography and images of parades and other choreographed movements. Rodchenko joined the October circle of artists in 1928 but was expelled three years later being charged with “formalism.” He returned to painting in the late 1930s, stopped photographing in 1942, and produced abstract expressionist works in the 1940s. He continued to organize photography exhibitions for the government during these years. He died in Moscow in 1956.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Eddie Adams

Eddie Adams Obituary and Biography from The National Press Photographers Association Web Site:

(September 20, 2004) — Eddie Adams, who won a Pulitzer prize for his 1968 image of the summary execution of a Vietcong guerrilla in a Saigon street, died Sunday morning September 19 at his Manhattan home and studio. He was 71. His family was with him when he died, said Jessica Stuart, a producer for The Eddie Adams Workshop, and funeral services will be private. Stuart also said that plans are being made for a memorial service late October; details for the memorial will be announced shortly.

Diagnosed in May with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), otherwise known as Lou Gehrig's disease, Adams spent his final months collecting and organizing his photographs, sitting at a PowerBook in his studio writing, visiting at his Bathhouse Studio with friends and photojournalists who came to show their support, and making plans for the Eddie Adams "Barnstorm" annual workshop to continue after his death.
"The upcoming workshop will go on as planned, that's what Eddie wanted," Stuart said Monday. The Columbus Day-weekend event will be the 17th year for the popular seminar held at his farm near Jeffersonville in upstate New York.

"We have lost Eddie, and we have lost a good one," said Hal Buell, former photography director for the Associated Press and author of the book Moments: Pulitzer Prize Winning Photographs. "He is remembered by most as the photographer who made that 'great photo that helped end the Vietnam War. ... You know, the one where a guy shoots another guy.' Well, he did make that picture, but Eddie Adams was no one-trick pony. He also had a great feel for the photographic narrative. Five of his pictures on a single subject told you more than five pictures' worth; the total was always greater than the sum of the parts.

"Eddie's main strength was that he had no agenda, no angle save that of doing first class photojournalism ... honest photojournalism, straightforward and to the point," Buell said, remembering the more than four decades that he and Adams worked together. "I first met Eddie when I returned from a stint of duty for AP in Asia. He was newly hired to work in the New York bureau. Eddie's talent was immediately obvious. He had a way of taking an idea an editor would suggest and building upon it, making it more than an idea or a suggestion. He made it a picture."

Born Edward T. Adams on June 12, 1933, in New Kensington, PA, he was a combat photographer in the Korean War while serving in the United States Marine Corps. Adams worked for the Associated Press twice: first from 1962 to 1972, and again from 1976 until 1980. He also shot for TIME and for Parade magazine, where his photographs made up more than 350 of their covers. He also shot the Parade magazine covers each year for the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon issue. This year, shortly before his death, he worked on a video profile of himself that was featured on the 24-hour Labor Day Telethon to raise money for MDA. ALS is one of the diseases the charity drive raises funds to fight.

Adams won the Pulitzer Prize for news photography in 1969 for his February 1, 1968, photograph titled "Saigon Execution." It shows Nguyen Ngoc Loan, a South Vietnamese general, shooting a bound Vietcong prisoner at point-blank range in a Saigon street. Loan was the director of South Vietnam's national police at the time, during the Tet Offensive. After shooting the man, Loan told journalists that the killing was justified, because the prisoner was a known Vietcong captain who had been seen killing others.

Adams may have been best known for his Vietnam photograph, but his career spanned coverage of 13 wars, as well as international politics, show business, and fashion for newspapers, wire services, and magazines. His work was recognized with more than 500 honors, including the 1978 Robert Capa Award and three George Polk Memorial Awards for war coverage.

In his biography, Adams says that he is most proud of his 1979 photograph "Boat of No Smiles," depicting 50 Vietnamese on a 30-foot fishing boat fleeing their homeland. "It was such a dire time for them, not even the children on board could find pleasure in a boat ride," he wrote. It was this photograph that ultimately led Congress and President Jimmy Carter to open immigration to more than 200,000 Vietnamese refugees, Adams said.

He started his photography career as a high school student in New Kensington shooting weddings for $20, his biography says, before joining the staff of the New Kensington Daily Dispatch. He also shot for the Enquirer & News in Battle Creek, MI, and the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. When Adams rejoined the Associated Press for the second time after freelancing for TIME, he was the first and only AP photographer to have the title "special correspondent." Later he had the same title with Parade magazine beginning in 1980.

Adams was especially proud of a photographic essay he created for Parade magazine in 1995, which he said contained "some of the most amazing, most beautiful children in America." One photograph of a 3-year-old girl with leukemia, shown clutching her security blanket, moved one woman so much that she started an organization, Project Linus, as a result. Karen Loucks' idea to provide security blankets made by volunteers to children seriously ill, traumatized, or otherwise in need grew to more than 300 chapters of the nonprofit charity in the U.S. and abroad.

"Eddie was not an easy man, which led to my calling him Easy Ed, an affectionate name that lasted as we worked together, argued together, imbibed together (he was a poor imbiber), and agreed, most importantly, that nothing told a story like a good picture," Buell said. "He was hardest on himself; he was impossible with himself when a picture was missed or an opportunity unexplored to the ultimate limit. He was driven to fine photography and storytelling.

"Eddie's workshop was an idea and dream that became part of his ambition back further than most know. He always wanted to give back to the profession that gave him so much even in his early career. The success of the Workshop bears testimony to persistence and passion that he brought to every click of the shutter. So he called upon his friends and his contacts in the photo industry and the Eddie Adams Workshop became a reality for a generation and, we hope, for generations to come."

Adams is survived by his wife of 15 years, Alyssa Ann Adkins, and their son, August Everhett Adams, 14. He also has three adult children from a previous marriage: Susan Ann Sinclair and Edward Adams II, both of Atlanta, and Amy Marie Adams, of Montclair, NJ. He's also survived by his 100-year-old mother, Adelaide Adams, and four sisters.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that contributions be made to a scholarship fund for the Eddie Adams Workshop. The Eddie Adams Scholarship Fund is in care of Jennifer Borg, North Jersey Media Group Foundation, 150 River Street, Hackensack, NJ, 07601.

© 2004 News Photographer magazine

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Ray Metzker

Ray Metzker Biography from The Museum of Contemporary Photography:

Ray Metzker’s images question the nature of the photograph and photographic “reality.” Through cropping, multiple imagery, and other formal inventions, his work explores options for transforming the vocabulary of the photograph. “Untitled” from 1969 illustrates the simple method of manipulating objective information through juxtaposition: two distinct women on the beach enter into a yin-yang relationship of line and gesture. The photograph is part of a series of pictures made from 1968 to 1975 of beach-goers in New Jersey. “The more fashion conscious probably go to other beaches, but what Atlantic City has – and what attracted me to it – is diversity,” Metzker said. Of the content of the pictures and his working method, Metzker added, “What appears in the pictures was the subject’s decision, not mine. I took what they presented – delicate moments – unadorned and unglamorous, yet tender and exquisite.” Metzker used a 1975 National Endowment for the Arts fellowship to pull the series together as Sand Creatures, later published as a book in 1979.

In a July 1992 letter, Metzker wrote the following about two untitled Sand Creatures pictures from 1969: “The photograph of the double image is from the series entitled Couplets and predates the single image by a number of years. Both pictures were made at beaches along the New Jersey coast: the couplet at Atlantic City, the single frame at Cape May. With both, my camera was an Olympus half-frame, a small amateurish piece of equipment that let me move about freely. The choice of the camera was essential to the development of the series.”

Metzker has dedicated his career to exploring the formal potentials of black-and-white photography, but they are not his exclusive concern. “When you look at the multiples, you are aware of patterning and so forth,” he says, “but there is still identifiable subject matter; frequently there are people there; there is a rhythm to those people.” Metzker’s 1959 thesis project, My Camera and I in the Loop, takes downtown Chicago as its subject, but renders it in experiments that tell more about photography than they do about the city. The pictures from this project were exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago (1959-1960), and included in the issue of Aperture devoted to the students and professors of the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago (1961).

Born in Milwaukee on September 10, 1931, Ray K. Metzker began to photograph at age fourteen, studied art at Beloit College, Wisconsin (BA, 1953), and studied photography at the Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago (MS, 1959). He has taught at the Philadelphia College of Art (1962-1980), the University of New Mexico (1970-1972), and Columbia College Chicago (1980-1983). Metzker left teaching in 1983 in order to photograph full-time. He is the recipient of two John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowships (1966 and 1979) and two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships (1974 and 1988). Metzker’s photographs have been shown in more than 47 one-person exhibitions, including such venues as the Art Institute of Chicago; Cleveland Museum of Art; High Museum of Art, Atlanta; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and Museum of Modern Art, New York. More than 45 collections include his work, among them are the Australian National Gallery, Canberra, New South Wales; Bibliothéque Nationale, Paris; Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photo; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Metzker lives in Philadelphia and Moab, Utah.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Cecil Beaton

Cecil Beaton Biography from

British portrait photographer and theatrical designer. Born in Hampstead, London, Beaton owned his first camera at the age of 11. His earliest portraits, set against home-made backdrops, were of his sisters Nancy and Baba. He was educated at Harrow and Cambridge, but did not graduate. His subsequent career made him one of those rare photographers whose name is well known to the general public. He succeeded initially as a society portraitist who could maximize the allure of debutantes. But the encouragement of the Sitwell family gave him access to the world of the arts, and a 1927 portrait of Edith Sitwell was one of his earliest published pictures. A visit to New York at the end of the 1920s led to photographic contracts for Vogue and, subsequently, Vanity Fair and Harper's Bazaar. Beaton's work focused on the cultural icons (both social and artistic) of his day, providing a record of its famous, beautiful, fashionable, and eccentric figures. His appetite for travel enabled him to build up a body of work that had international significance. Hollywood stars captured by his camera included Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and Katherine Hepburn, while painters ranged from Salvador Dalí to Francis Bacon. His portraits spanned parts of six decades and reflected successive generations of the new and avant-garde, from Stravinsky, Cocteau, and Picasso to Warhol and Jagger. In the 1930s he was commissioned to take a series of pictures of Queen Elizabeth, and this proved to be a prelude to further royal photographs and the eventual status of official family portraitist. During the Second World War, in a phase of his career far removed from its usual glamorous milieu, he documented air-raid damage in London and served as a war photographer in Africa and Asia.

Beaton's abilities extended beyond photography. He was a writer and illustrator (with a talent for caricature), and won recognition as a costume and stage designer. Published collections of his photographs included The Book of Beauty (1930), Cecil Beaton's Scrapbook (1937), Cecil Beaton's New York (1938), and Persona Grata (1953), in which text to accompany the portraits was supplied by the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan. He also wrote a historical study, British Photographers (1944), an early autobiography (Photobiography, 1951), and published a series of extracts from his diaries. (The unexpurgated versions that appeared posthumously were considerably more caustic.) His set and costume designs for plays, ballet, and opera were in demand on both sides of the Atlantic, and he served as costume and production designer for a number of films, winning Academy Awards for his work on Gigi (1958) and My Fair Lady (1964). In 1968 a retrospective of his work was mounted by London's National Portrait Gallery, and in 1972 he was knighted. A cerebral haemorrhage in 1974 resulted in frailty and partial paralysis, but in his last years Beaton taught himself to write and use a camera with his left hand.
For more information about Mr. Beaton see:  Vickers, H., Cecil Beaton: The Authorised Biography (1985).

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus Biography from the Jewish Virtual Library written by Daniel Oppenheimer:

Diane Arbus was born, to a wealthy Jewish family, in 1923. David Nemerov, her father, was the hard-working son of a Russian immigrant; her mother Gertrude was the daughter of the owners of Russek's Fur Store. After the marriage, David helped manage Russek's, and oversaw its transformation into a department store, Russek's of Fifth Avenue, which specialized in furs. His interest, however, was in women's clothing, and he was said to have an extraordinary intuition for what the next trend in women's fashion would be.
Diane (pronounced Dee-Ann) was a privileged child, raised with her two siblings in large apartments on Central Park West and Park Avenue. She later told Studs Terkel, for his Hard Times: An Oral History of the Depression , "I grew up feeling immune and exempt from circumstance. One of the things I suffered from was that I never felt adversity. I was confirmed in a sense of unreality."
The wealth was complicated, as it often is, by distant parents: her father was kept away by work and her mother by depression. She was loved more than she was known. In her New Yorker review of two new Arbus exhibits -- Family Albums , at the Mount Holyoke College Museum of Art, and Revealed , at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art -- Judith Thurman writes of Arbus, "Her heritage was, in fact, that of most artistic children of privilege, who feel that their true selves are invisible, while resenting the dutiful, false selves for which they are loved: a dilemma that inspires the quest, in whatever medium, for a reflection."

She was luminous, with large green eyes, a delicate, exotic face and a slim body. And she was, writes Thurman, "nubile" (almost every published photo of her has a sexual charge to it). All kinds of people were captivated by her, and she was captivated by all kinds of people.

At the age of 13, she met Allan Arbus, an employee in the advertising department of her parents' store, and they married, with her parents' grudging assent, after she turned 18. After the war, during which Allan studied photography in the New Jersey Signal Corps, the couple supported themselves, and daughters Doon and Yolanda, as fashion photographers (the family money, somehow, never materialized for Arbus as an adult).
Though the work was divided along traditional gender roles, with Allan at the camera and Diane as the stylist/art director, they had a supportive relationship. Allan gave Diane her first camera, and they took equal credit on their published photos. In 1956, a year after a photo of theirs was included in curator Edward Steichen's massive Family of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), Allan supported her decision to leave the fashion business to him to pursue her own interests.

The professional separation was followed, in 1959, by a marital separation. They remained close friends, however, and his laboratory assistants developed her film until, in 1969, he re-married and moved to California to become an actor (he played psychiatrist Dr. Sidney Freedman on M.A.S.H.). The fraying of their marriage, though difficult for her, coincided with an efflorescence in her art. "I always felt that it was our separation that made her a photographer," Allan recently told the New York Times. "I couldn't have stood for her going to the places she did. She'd go to bars on the Bowery and to people's houses. I would have been horrified."

As important to her evolution was a class she took with Lisette Model, a European émigree and photographer who encouraged Arbus, on the one hand, to push further into her thematic interest in unorthodoxy, and, on the other hand, to master the conventional technical aspects of photography.

By the early '60s, her commercial portraits, for magazines such as Esquire and Harper's Bazaar , began to assume a distinctive look. Though taken of mainly traditional subjects -- actors, writers, activists -- they were strange and obscurely troubling. She would spend hours with her subjects, following them to their homes or offices, talking and listening to them, trying to soften them up to the point where they began to drop their public façade "In nearly every case," writes Harold Hayes, one of her editors at Esquire , "her subject would be framed by his most natural, obvious setting. . .and posed facing straight-eyed and unblinking toward the center of her camera lens, always with the same curious expression, as though seeking from the beholder some special understanding."

Her non-commercial work, for which she was awarded Guggenheim fellowships in 1963 and 1966, oriented toward the unfamous -- a couple on a park bench, a young Republican, identical twin girls -- and the marginal: dwarves, drag queens, circus performers.

In 1962, she met John Szarkowski, who had replaced Edward Steichen as the curator of photography at MOMA and brought with him a romantic, subjective aesthetic of photography: a visual counterpart to the New Journalism of writers like Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe. In 1967, Szarkowski featured Arbus in the movement's manifesto/exhibition, New Documents. That show, more than any other, established her reputation.

In July of 1971, at the age of 48, during a bout of depression, she committed suicide (pills and a razor blade). The following year, MOMA held a retrospective of her work; it became the most attended solo photography exhibition in its history, and the monograph that followed, edited by Doon Arbus and Marvin Israel, one of the best-selling art books in history.

The images, from the retrospective and the monograph, have seeped into the public consciousness. Her depictions of suburban ennui and shriveled post-celebrity have become archetypal. Photos such as "Identical Twins," "A young man in curlers," and "A Jewish giant at home with his parents," along with a number of the untitled photos she took at institutions for the severely retarded, are as recognizable in themselves as, for instance, Walker Evans' pictures of poor Southern sharecroppers from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men . Like Evans, who was a friend and influence, her style has been prodigiously imitated.

Arbus continues to fascinate, thirty years later, for a number of complementary reasons. The photos are amazing to look at, startling even now, when images of the downtrodden and the marginal have become the common property of advertisements and movies. And they are formally innovative, marrying the conventions of 19th century portrait photography -- face-front, amongst one's things, subject in collaboration with photographer -- to the seamy concerns of the 1960s.

Her story, also, fits the popular '60s template of the romantic, tragic, brilliant, unconventional, tortured artist -- Sylvia Plath, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix -- who was too beautiful to survive in the fallen world.

Finally, there is the question, both implicit in her photographs and central to her biography: Why did they let her do this to them? Why did the transvestite bring her home to his apartment and allow her to expose his un-normalcy -- what at the time would have been called deviancy -- to the world? Why did the institutions allow her access to the retarded under their care, and to what extent could the retarded have given consent? Did the "normal" people she photographed know that she would catch them precisely at the moment when, for whatever reason, they looked most freakish?

Arbus, perhaps more than any other photographer before and after, forces us to question the morality of photography. What is it that we're doing when we take a picture, and what gives us the right? In 1973, Susan Sontag, whom Arbus had once photographed, wrote what is still the most-cited essay on Arbus, in which she accused her, essentially, of nihilism.

The essay, first published in the New York Review of Books , became the fulcrum of On Photography , a collection of essays that Sontag wrote, in part, to justify her fascination with and repulsion for Arbus, and in which she used Arbus to explore the politics of photography.

"The images that mobilize conscience," writes Sontag, "are always linked to a given historical situation. The more general they are, the less likely they are to be effective."

Photographs, writes Sontag, tend to diminish and atomize experience. They inure us, through repetition, to horror. They protect us, and distance us, from the valuable anxiety of unfamiliar places and situations. They misrepresent themselves as reality, as capturing the essence, in two dimensions, of a world that is four-dimensional (the fourth dimension, in particular, being slighted). "Photography," she writes, "implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks."

Arbus' photos are for Sontag the worst kind of perpetrators of this fraud: unhistorical, unpolitical, unrealistic portraits that masquerade as precisely the opposite. Arbus' brilliance was to catch everybody unmasked, at the moment of transition between unconscious repose and practiced, social self-representation. People seemed to reveal, in that moment, their essential being, which was alienated and miserable (an Arbus photo, according to legend, revealed the misery of an otherwise happy-seeming woman soon before her suicide).

The shock of the photos is in part that they suggest to us that were Arbus standing before us with her camera, we wouldn't perform much better, and that therefore, perhaps, we're as miserable as the woman on the park bench, as freakish as the transvestite in curlers (who at least is aware of, and in dialogue with, his freakhood). "Arbus's photographs," writes Sontag, "undercut politics. . .by suggesting a world in which everybody is alien, hopelessly isolated, immobilized in mechanical, crippled identities and relationships."

To Sontag, Arbus was a voyeur from the Upper West Side, a coddled depressive, a disillusioned fashion photographer, an emotional midget with an exquisite eye who sought out the marginal and the sensational because, in habituating herself to their horror, she hoped to numb her own pain. She is emblematic of the paradox of photography, that "a pseudo-familiarity with the horrible reinforces alienation, making one less able to react in real life." Arbus' suicide, from this perspective, becomes not a proof of her sincerity, as others have read it, but a consequence of her compulsive insincerity.

Arbus' photos are so undeniable in their effect that, even when the response is approving, it's expressed in similarly troubled terms. Janet Malcolm, whose The Journalist and the Murderer is the definitive meditation on the parasitic relationship between an artist and her subject, describes Arbus, in Diana & Nikon, as "a straight woman from a rich Jewish family that made its money in fur [who] has penetrated a sordid closed world and, through her journalist's too-niceness, become privy to its exciting and pathetic secrets."

Whereas for Sontag, Arbus' photos dissolve the difference between misery and normality, and thus blunt our compassion for the miserable, for Malcolm Arbus exacerbates the difference, exposes what the well-fed and well-formed feel, but loathe to acknowledge, when confronted with physical and emotional deformity.

"In photographing the retarded," Malcolm writes, "[Arbus] waits for the moment of fullest expression of disability: she shows people who are slack-jawed, vacant, drooling, uncoordinated, uncontrolled, demented-looking. She does not flinch from the truth that difference is different, and therefore frightening, threatening, disgusting. She does not put herself above us -- she implicates herself in the accusation."

Arbus herself, so far as we know, didn't like to describe her art in moral terms. She was, depending on your level of skepticism, earnest or calculatingly naïve in admitting the selfishness of her motives. She photographed what she did, she said, because that was what interested her, and because nobody else was.

"Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot," she wrote. "It was one of the first things I photographed and it had a terrific kind of excitement for me. I just used to adore them. I still do adore some of them. I don't quite mean they're my best friends but they made me feel a mixture of shame and awe. There's a quality of legend about freaks. Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. Most people go through life dreading they'll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They've already passed their test in life. They're aristocrats."

Arbus is remembered as a chronicler of freaks -- because that's how she cast herself, and because her suicide casts a garish shadow back on what we presume, maybe too easily, was the freakishness of her inner life. And because it's still, all these years later, easier to contemplate who she was than it is to step behind her lens and contemplate the people she photographed.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Amy Arbus

Amy Arbus Biography from Luminous Lint:

American contemporary photographer and daughter of Diane Arbus whose career combines commercial work, teaching at ICP and personal projects. She has published three books, with a fourth scheduled for release in late March, 2008. Her first book, No Place Like Home (Doubleday & Co, 1986), examined unconventional houses and her second, The Inconvenience of Being Born (Fotofolio, 1999), the emotional reactions of babies.

In the 1980s Arbus took a series of photographs picturing New York street fashion. More than five hundred of the images were published in Village Voice at the time and seventy were later collected in her book On the Street (Welcome, 2006). Her latest title, The Fourth Wall (Welcome, 2008), draws on her series of portraits of actors from the New York stage.

Amy Arbus has been photographing professionally for twenty-two years. Her photographs have appeared in over one hundred periodicals around the world, including The New Yorker, Aperture, ESPN Magazine, and The New York Times Magazine. She is a contributing photographer to New York Magazine’s theater section. Her advertising clients include American Express, Nickelodeon, Saatchi & Saatchi, New Line Cinema, Christiano Fissore, and The California Children and Families Commission. From 1980 through 1991 her monthly page, “On the Street,” appeared in the style section of The Village Voice. Her first book, No Place Like Home, portraits of people who live in unusual homes, was published by Doubleday & Company in 1986. Her second book, The Inconvenience of Being Born, a photo essay on the extreme emotional nature of infants, was published by Fotofolio in 1999 and received an Award of Excellence from Communication Arts.

Amy Arbus teaches portraiture at the International Center of Photography, The Toscana Photographic Workshops and the Fine Arts Work Center. Her most recent exhibition was at The Ben Shahn Galleries at William Patterson University in New Jersey. She has had twelve one-woman exhibitions worldwide, and her photographs are part of the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

[Courtesy of Watermark Fine Art Photographs & Books, September 2007]