Flattering the photographer of freaks

A new film about Diane Arbus imagines her as compassionate. Have the filmmakers seen her photos?

Nathalie Rothschild

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The American photographer Diane Arbus once wrote: ‘A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.’ It seems Steven Shainberg and Erin Cressida Wilson were inspired by this quixotic insight. Their film Fur: An imaginary portrait of Diane Arbus leaves you with the same feeling; the more it tells you about Arbus, the less you know about her.

The film was inspired by, but not based on, Patricia Bosworth’s Diane Arbus: A biography and is a tribute to the late photographer of ‘freaks’. As an opening caption says, the film ‘invents characters and situations that reach beyond reality to express what might have been Arbus’s inner experience on her extraordinary path’.

This imagined Arbus (Nicole Kidman) has a thing for secrets and for revealing them; early on we find out that she exposes herself to her neighbours, unbuttoning her prim dress and stroking herself above her under garments. Not before long, she has revealed this secret to her husband Allan (Ty Burrell) and soon after to her new neighbour Lionel (Robert Downey Jr), who compels her to open up more than just her dress buttons. He is her ticket out of conventional family life boredom and into the strange and obscure reality that is the world outside affluent upper Manhattan.

Arbus is an assistant to her husband, a commercial studio photographer. She has two daughters and overbearing, wealthy parents, who, in the beginning of the film, stage a fashion show for fur buyers at the couple’s home. The slow-motion close-ups of the upper-class guests grinning and chewing their food signals both Arbus’s attentiveness to people’s flaws and that she did not quite belong in the sheltered world she was then confined to.

The same evening, Lionel, a masked man, moves into the flat above Diane’s. She spots him from her window and is immediately fascinated by him. This fascination grows when she visits his odd home and he takes off his knitted mask to reveal he is covered in long, wavy hair and looks like Chewbacca from Star Wars. Lionel was once a circus attraction, but is now a wig maker. As she did in real life, Diane uses the camera as a licence to get closer to this outcast and, as in fairy tales, the beauty falls in love with the beast.

An attempt to explore the ‘inner life’ of an artist can only end in fanciful speculations, especially if the artist has been dead for over 30 years and the filmmakers imagine her as an adult Alice in Wonderland. Because Arbus was fascinated by strangeness and eccentricity or, when photographing ‘normal’ people, wanted to reveal their non-apparent oddities, this imaginary portrait of her is also strange. Fur is a speculative fantasy which sheds little light either on the psyche of Arbus or the ‘strange’ subjects of the portraits she left behind.

Neither does Fur tell us anything about Arbus’s artistic methods and ideas. In fact, we hardly even see her leave the house; in the film, the structure of her apartment building is somehow symbolic of that inner experience and emotional life that the filmmakers wanted to explore. But in real life, Arbus actively sought out marginal people, social outcasts and eccentrics and brought them to the surface in mainstream society. They didn’t simply live next door to her, march down an opening in her ceiling and communicate through the plumbing, as they do in the film.

Arbus’s own eccentricity was her use of the camera as a licence to enter other worlds, and otherness was always retained in her work. Some commentators have, however, attributed compassion and universality to Arbus’s oeuvre. Consider, for instance, the introduction to the 2005 Diane Arbus Revelations exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. It claimed her photographs are ‘as universal as they are startling’ and that Arbus’s ‘gift for rendering strange those things we consider most familiar, and uncovering the familiar within the exotic, enlarges our understanding of ourselves’.

Yet Arbus’s photographs are only interesting because of their strangeness and that, not any compassion on Arbus’s part, is what is compelling about them. Arbus’s subjects ranged from a human pincushion to a Jewish giant, a Mexican dwarf, transvestites, asylum patients, circus artists, nudists and Germaine Greer. But even when her subjects were from non-marginal worlds, like the young boy in Central Park clutching a toy hand-grenade or the posh lady on Fifth Avenue, through Arbus’s lens the familiar becomes odd – and so the subjects and viewers of her work are always estranged. (Incidentally, she would have taken little interest in the porcelain doll looks of Nicole Kidman.)

It is true that there is a sameness in Arbus’s work, but that is more down to the fact that she treated everyone she photographed with the same intrusive fascination, treating them as exotic, eccentric and freakish. It’s as if she saw her surroundings as a never-ending Halloween parade.

Having added the ‘imaginary portrait’ caveat to the title of their film, Shainberg and Cressida Wilson are free to speculate and fantasise however much they want. But apart from the fact that this seems rather pointless, they also let their imagination run amok. The compassion and involvement of their imagined Arbus is not recognisable in the real woman’s work.

In the film, Arbus agrees to take her clothes off whilst photographing in a nudist colony and approaches what seems to be the only attractive woman around (though she took pictures of people not normally considered beautiful). She puts her camera aside and asks the woman to tell her a secret before photographing her, but then agrees to tell a secret herself first.

Yes, Arbus did ask for permission before taking pictures, but, really, she was a collector of eccentricities and only a temporary visitor – or intruder – in other worlds. To Arbus, photography was ‘naughty’, she ‘adored’ freaks and found a seedy nudist camp she visited ‘terrific’. It’s easy to mistake such excited assessments as empathic, but often it seems the fact that she killed herself leads people to read empathy into her work, as if she was really always one of the outsiders instead of their exoticising chronicler. Arbus may have once photographed a circus company, but she had no intention of joining it.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild reviewed In the Face of History, an exhibition of twentieth-century photography. Josie Appleton believed Susan Sontag’s On Photography offers a unique insight into Iraq torture snaps. Nancy McDermott observed that photographer Annie Leibovitz always reveals her subject’s humanity. Or read more film reviews at: spiked issue Film.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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