The Butterfly Collection
November 5, 2012
“It’s true I didn’t really adore him but I was really sort of awful when he died in the way that I watched. I stood in the corner of the room almost like a creep…I was just spellbound by the whole process. The gradual diminishment was fantastic. People really get to look like nobody, or just like somebody, you know what I mean? … All his lineaments changed. And I photographed him then which was really tremendously cold. But I suppose there is something somewhat cold in me. Although I resent that implication.”
–Diane Arbus, on the death of her father, 1963.
Diane Nemerov’s earliest memories were those of glitz and luxury, a world that seemed to consist solely of maids and nannies and trips to Europe, extravagant apartments, progressive private schools, and a deeply penetrating sense of discomfort about it all. Her father was the merchandising director of one of the city’s leading fur emporiums; the Great Depression would have had a negligible impact on the family as whole but Diane seemed to feel the effects of it more profoundly. She described herself as humiliated by the family fortune; a princess forever on someone’s arm, trapped in a loathsome movie of a vaguely obscure country, the kingdom both horrifying and all too familiar.
Perhaps it was this sense of possessing an inherent yet undeserved privilege at a very young age, and during a time when so many lacked so much, which led her to feel an unshakeable, almost aggressive, need to suffer; because it had never been literal, it became intentional. Like the majority of her photographs, this might have started out staged, deliberated over until she was satisfied each aspect was presented in a sufficiently provoking fashion, but then, like those photographs, her need to be marginalized, to both exploit and embody her sometimes distasteful, yet always strangely appealing subjects, began to take on new, troubling dimensions. Diane compared herself to a “magic mirror who reflects back what anyone wants to believe…because I can’t believe they believe it;” this combination of willingness to take part in the deceit, coupled with a sort of compromised incredulity–an almost fairy tale sensibility–I found to be especially striking when looking at her photographs. In a way, I felt both disoriented and wholly absorbed, rather like I was falling through my own mirror, never quite sure what I was seeing yet entirely unable to turn away. “I don’t press the shutter,” she once said. “The image does. And it’s like being gently clobbered.”
It was 1967 and Diane Arbus had just fled to Florida following the exhibition of her work at the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibit, entitled “New Documents,” had been critically acclaimed, although a number of reviews noted her tendency to respond to the grotesque in life, a fascination, which, perhaps, bordered on close to poor taste. She had treated the exhibit as a wonderful party, though one she approached with trepidation. There had been a conflict between her and the curator, hastily resolved, over “segregating” certain photographs. To present transvestites next to suburban matrons would be disconcerting, perhaps unacceptable to a viewing audience. Much better to enact certain moral distinctions, no matter how unpleasant. Diane had responded furiously, noting that to separate the photographs amounted to separating the actual subjects, stripping them of any sort of decency or respectability. “That is how people fall between chairs,” she declared. When private morality usurps any desire to be troubling, and therefore thoughtful. We might flinch when observing these contrasts, but isn’t it better to ask ourselves why?
Diane emerged the victor in the argument, her astute stubbornness prevailing, though she was left feeling unsettled by the entire affair. She was just reaching the height of her fame, and she was miserable. To be truly happy, she believed a forlorn sensibility coupled with complete anonymity were necessary. She went searching for them in Florida, a week after her exhibit opened, but only found a place where she felt unaccepted, stagnating among turquoise Mustangs and high-rise retirement complexes. “There is a kind of bad smell here like God cooking chicken soup in the sky,” she wrote. A month later, she returned home, to piles of unpaid bills, museums requesting prints of her photographs or for her to speak at one event or another (all for no money, of course) and a strong sense of besiegement and paranoia. By 1968, she was hospitalized, her fears, whether psychosomatic or merely symptoms of what terrified her the most—old age—having incapacitated her entirely.
It was during this time, strangely enough, that Diane felt the most at peace. “Something about realizing that I don’t Have to Photograph is good for me,” she declared. She began seeing a female psychiatrist after Allan Arbus, her ex-husband now five years divorced, left New York for California with his new wife. Although their marriage had ended years before, the couple had continued to share a darkroom and Allan had been the one to process each of Diane’s negatives. His absence now required her to take charge of her own life in a way she had never needed to do before. “I am learning all over again how to live, how to make a living how to do what I want and what I don’t…” she told her daughter Doon, shortly after leaving the hospital. “Partly it seems a matter of severing connections in my head. Like if I do this that will happen, and I have spent a lot of energy exercising non-existent magical controls.” Her very temperament, unpredictable under general circumstances, seemed to intensify even more rapidly as she fluctuated between extreme highs and lows. One moment she would be filled with energy, hopeful at her prospects, excited about her future work, and in the next she would be exhausted, disappointed, distraught over the very things she had so deeply wanted in that previous moment.
This erratic intensity is especially evident in her last photographs. There seems to be a greater sensitivity in the portrayal of her subjects, as if she is becoming more aware of them, and the awareness presents itself as a sadness infused with a strange, bleak light.
I wonder if she ever questioned herself. If, in the midst of her preparations (almost ritualistic) she began to think of her daughters, her ex-husband, her many lovers and friends. If it mattered who would find her, how they would find her, and how long she would simply lie there in the tub, features mottled and distorted after just two days in the sweltering heat of the city in late July. Did the choice of a red t-shirt and denim shorts carry any particular significance, or were they simply the last clean clothing she had? The tile must have been warm against her bare feet, the polish chipped on each of her toes. Her hair dark and flowing against her shirt. She had stopped having it cut a long time before. She must have walked over to where her notebook lay on the floor, open to a particular page, now covered in a precise scrawl reading “The Last Supper” and picked it up, placing it on the window ledge, where it would remain until Marvin Israel burst into her apartment two days later, becoming frantic when she had repeatedly not answered her phone. A camera on a tripod rested in the corner of the bathroom, there to record. What, though? The proof that once something was there and now it is not? Violence mixed with total serenity? Or, maybe, it was meant to be an ironic sort of acknowledgment that her death, like her life, like her work, was both unexpected and inevitable, hard to look at but even harder to look away from.
“I think it does, a little, hurt to be photographed.”–Diane Arbus
Michelle Koufopoulos is a freelance writer, editor, blogger, and book lover. She graduated from Sarah Lawrence College with a B.A. with Honors and studied writing at Oxford University. Michelle is currently the Managing Editor of Freerange Nonfiction, an Assistant Editor at The Faster Times, and an Editorial Assistant for Guernica. You can follow her on Twitter