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“Why I’m Saying No To This New Arbus Book” (1995)

A. D. Coleman, January 2015. Photo by Anna Lung.[In the fall of 1995 I received a review copy of the new Diane Arbus monograph, Untitled, just published by Aperture. Planning to review it, I sought answers to several legal and structural questions its production and publication raised. Becoming suspicious when I proved unable to get satisfactory answers — indeed, any answers at all — from the book’s publisher and the photographer’s estate, I decided to pursue those matters with the government officials responsible for supervising the care and legal treatment of developmentally disabled people in New York and the two bordering states, Connecticut and New Jersey — what gets referred to, around these parts, as “the tri-state area.” (I did so on the assumption that Arbus had made most if not all of these images at institutions in the region.)

The consistent responses I received from those committed to protecting the developmentally disabled perturbed me. At the time I published regularly in the New York Observer and a range of other periodicals in the U.S. and abroad. Those readers would have expected from me some response to a book as long-awaited and dependably much discussed as this one. Yet, for the reasons enumerated below, I didn’t feel capable, in good conscience, of writing about its content. So I chose instead to write about that situation.

I hoped that this would focus attention on the issues raised by the publishing project, and provoke serious discussion of the legal, ethical, and editorial/curatorial issues at stake. It had no such effect, I regret to say; indeed, I remain alone among my colleagues in considering those even worth mentioning. So it goes. I offer it here on the twentieth anniversary of its appearance in the New York Observer, October 2, 1995. — A. D. C.]

Why I’m Saying No To This New Arbus Book

I herewith declare my refusal to review Untitled, the new book featuring previously unpublished and unexhibited photographs by Diane Arbus, which has just been issued by Aperture ($50 hardbound). My reasons for this decision:

First, I believe that public presentation of this imagery — a set of pictures of developmentally disabled people made during the period 1969-71, the years just before the photographer’s suicide — exploits its human subjects in ways that I find morally reprehensible. I refuse to contribute to that process in any way.

Second, I believe that there is no way we can consider this set of pictures an authenticated, full-fledged component of Arbus’s oeuvre — and this publication drastically misrepresents her body of work in that regard. Moreover, it seems designed to further mythologize her and inappropriately inflate her body of work.

In making this stand, I realize that I risk sounding like an Arlene Croce wannabe. Ms. Croce, the New Yorker‘s dance critic, recently raised a furore by publicly refusing to review a work by dancer-choreographer Bill T. Jones that incorporated people with AIDS as performers, on the grounds that such “victim art” fell outside critical discourse. While I sympathize with her sense of her dilemma, I don’t agree with her solution in that case. But the issues at hand here are entirely different.

Given that the subjects of these photographs were all residents in institutions for what were then known as the “mentally retarded,” few if any of them had the capacity to give informed, meaningful consent regarding either the initial making of images of themselves or the subsequent public display of those images in publications or exhibitions.

According to the Arbus estate, “Diane Arbus made arrangements to photograph at several residential institutions for the mentally retarded” in 1969, and “With the authorization of the institutions and the cooperation of everyone involved, she made periodic return visits on a number of occasions.” The locations of those institutions are unspecified in the book; the estate will say only that they were all “on the East Coast.” Neither the publisher nor the estate would answer my questions as to what releases, if any, Arbus obtained at the time for subsequent use of these images — nor would they say whether her estate obtained such releases after her death.

According to state officials and lawyers specializing in protection of and advocacy for the developmentally disabled in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, people housed in such institutions in the late 1960s were considered to have few if any rights. It is possible, these experts said, that blanket authorizations to photograph “wards of the state” (those without individual legal guardians) might have been granted to Arbus by the administrators of some institutions.

However, they noted, our understanding of developmental disability and our sense of the rights of those born to face that challenge have changed dramatically since then; it is unlikely that a photographer today would be allowed into such an institution to pursue a project like Arbus’s. And some advocates for the developmentally disabled said that those very pictures that Aperture has published in Untitled probably could not have been legally authorized after 1973.

“Absent meaningful consent from the individuals today, the answer would almost undoubtedly be No,” said Lawrence Berliner, director of the Legal Services Division of Connecticut’s Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities. “We’re dealing with dignity issues, privacy issues, and the basic right to keep personal information confidential.” He added that any of Arbus’s subjects who are still alive would have more legal rights today than they did then — and would have some legal say over the use of those photographs. Both the Arbus estate and Aperture refused to say whether any of the subjects of these pictures are still alive.

So what we have here is a group of pictures of comparatively helpless people — unable to care for themselves, medically and legally incompetent to a significant degree — made by dint of Arbus’s taking advantage of what everyone in the field of patient rights now considers a benighted, outdated, practically medieval set of regulations and assumptions about the rights of the mentally challenged. They are pictures that no responsible administrator of such a facility would or could permit to be made today. And they are being presented, a quarter-century after their making, as if those changes of attitude and law had not taken place; the issue isn’t even mentioned in the book. I consider that an inexcusable invasion of privacy and a fundamental violation of human rights.

In Arbus’s defense, I should note that none of these images were ever exhibited or published during her lifetime. The estate asserts that Arbus considered producing a book of these pictures, but she never went so far as the creation of a maquette for such a publication. From all reports, Arbus gauged her own work not only in terms of its success as powerful imagery but in regard to its fulfillment of a moral contract she felt existed between her subjects and herself. Would she ultimately have felt that any or all of these images lived up to those terms? We’ll never know. Since (according to the estate) she showed samples of them only to “friends, colleagues and a few museum curators,” I do not think she breached that contract herself. But her estate has breached it for her. And since she left these photographs in the hands of others, rather than destroying them or ordering them destroyed, she bears some responsibility for their emergence in public.

Yet the bulk of that responsibility falls on Arbus’s daughter, Doon Arbus, who heads the estate, and Michael Hoffman, executive director of Aperture. That financial profit played a motivational role in all this seems inarguable. According to Michael Sand, the editor at that publishing house, “Michael [Hoffman] has been after Doon to do this book for almost 20 years.” With good reason: Aperture’s press release makes a point of noting that the Arbus monograph it published shortly after her death has now sold more than 300,000 copies — making it one of the best-selling photography books of all time.

There is another point to this project: the continued heroicizing and mythologizing of Arbus. Her daughter’s afterword to Untitled makes this clear. In the opening sentence of the second paragraph, she writes of Arbus: “When she made [these photographs], she had already staked out her territory as a photographer and there was no retreat.” That’s just for starters. Arbus herself was fond of such breathless military metaphors for her way of working. For Doon Arbus to reiterate them — or, rather, amplify them deliriously — does not persuade me that Arbus was so noble that she could do no wrong, and that her motives, or those of her inheritors and merchandisers, should go unquestioned.

Related to all this is the further inflating of Arbus’s oeuvre. A commitment to taking photography seriously begins with the recognition that the terms body of work or oeuvre are to be reserved for those segments of a maker’s output that have been prepared for public presentation by the maker himself or herself, or at least under his or her supervision. Those segments of the output constitute the integrated, organic “whole” of a photographer’s oeuvre. The rest, no matter how much it may attract us, is (to use a distinction from general systems theory) merely part of the undifferentiated “heap.”

How are we to determine that portion of a photographer’s output that might constitute a body of work? By scholarship, simple scholarship. Any image published, exhibited, or sold under the maker’s name during his or her lifetime must be considered a part of the oeuvre; so, too, should be any images that did not reach the public but were clearly intended to — because they exist as finished, approved, exhibition-quality prints, or are included in book dummies or magazine layouts, or because the photographer’s papers and notes make it evident that public presentation of a particular image was intended, or at least desired.

We have no difficulty, for example, in determining the contents of the oeuvres of Edward Weston, Aaron Siskind, Berenice Abbott and Imogen Cunningham. These are redacted bodies of work. But we have avoided for the past twenty-five years the necessary and relatively simple task of identifying the oeuvre of Diane Arbus.

At the time of her death, Arbus had exhibited and published very sparingly (aside from her commissioned free-lance pictures, the so-called “magazine work”). No more than four or five dozen of her images had been validated by her for public presentation. That is what constitutes her oeuvre, that and nothing else. All those shows and publications are known; her contributions to them would be easy to identify. Why is it that no one has taken the trouble to do so? Could it be because, as a total oeuvre, sixty images is hardly enough to support a major international reputation? Would that explain why her work-print and negative files were rifled after her death, in search of images she’d never approved (including about a dozen from this project), to bulk up and thereby validate a major retrospective and monograph?

Certainly that’s what’s happened in the case of these “untitled” images. According to the estate, Arbus “developed and contacted [contact-printed] nearly 200 rolls of film in connection with this project. She also made rough 8-by-10-inch proof prints of a great many individual images from the series … Doon Arbus, in consultation with the publisher [Mr. Hoffman] and the designer [Yolanda Cuomo], selected the images included in the book from among the proof prints originally made by the artist herself.”

All that a proof print tells us is that the photographer wanted to consider an image at greater length — that is, that he or she thought it had possibilities, or found it interesting for one reason or another. In no way does it represent a stamp of approval or a final decision on the image’s place within or outside of the body of work. And it cannot be claimed that the selection of images in this book represents the redactive decisions of Arbus herself.[1]

On that basis, I reject out of hand their incorporation into whatever might be determined to be Arbus’s true oeuvre, and will voice no opinion about the images themselves, now or in the future. Furthermore, I propose that presentation of them as part of her oeuvre — in this book, in other publications and in exhibitions — deliberately misleads all who see them; and that marketing them as such, in the form of this book and prints made from those negatives, constitutes false and deceptive advertising, and an act of fraud.

The publication and/or exhibition of unredacted material such as this does a serious disservice to any artist’s true oeuvre, and impeaches subsequent criticism and scholarship thereof. Until we establish and maintain guidelines for discriminating between a body of work and any old batch of photographs, there will be no true canon in photography, only what we have now: a monstrous, constantly growing heap, a heap of heaps. If we truly aspire to make of it a whole, the time for major amputation is upon us. This is as good a place as any to begin applying the scalpel.

[1] In her book Diane Arbus: A Biography (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005), Patricia Bosworth traces this project from its inception circa 1969-70, when Arbus began “concentrating on photographing retardates — middle-aged retardates at a home in Vineland, New Jersey.” Initially, according to the biographer, she was “delighted and moved” by the experience (pp. 299-300). But she felt “ambivalent” about doing a book of these images (p. 306). And in June of 1971, just weeks before she took her own life, she called her mentor and former teacher Lisette Model “to tell her that she’d reversed her opinion about the retardate pictures — she hated them now, hated them because she couldn’t control them! … Their world … was a world she could never know, could never enter, and this frustrated her, depressed her” (p. 312). Bosworth also indicates repeatedly that Arbus had an almost pathological fear of publishing a book of her own work. See, for example, the footnote on p. 292.

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