Diane Arbus's 1960's: Auguries of Experience
(University of Minnesota Press)
US: Jan 2012
Diane Arbus’s 1960s: Auguries of Experience is challenging in a number of ways. The most glaring problem is not the author’s fault, but it does leave readers wondering how a book centered around photographer Diane Arbus was published at all when the author was unable to get permission to use any of her photographs. That’s right—this is a photography book in which no photographs appear.
Obviously, readers are free to look up the photographs elsewhere, but that creates research that the reader shouldn’t have to do. Moreover, Gross sometimes refers to Arbus’s photography without naming specific prints or in general terms, leaving the readers to trust only his interpretation of her work. Also, while Gross understandably doesn’t wish this work to turn into a biography, the only decontextualized biography he reveals in the introduction is that Arbus died young of suicide. And he brings that fact up to say it should not be the defining moment of her life—agreed, but how else are we to define her, based on his lack of biographical information?
Another challenge Gross presents is the use of complex terminology without defining his precise use of it. He frequently discusses the “positivism” of Arbus’s work. “Positivism” is mostly known as a philosophical movement that has little direct application to art, and if Gross is referring to that movement, he needs to more strongly connect it to photography in order to ground the reader in his definition of the word. If, however, he is using the word in a different sense, that needs to be stated, as well. It comes off as terribly uneven when Gross defines simpler words like “panorama” and “pastiche” that have obvious relevance to the art world. Yet, his emphasis on positivism—and antipositivism—goes through the book ungrounded in specific examples or definitions.
But one important thing to keep in mind that will perhaps soften readers’ expectations is that this is not a book about Diane Arbus. She is the central figure in a book about the osmosis of cultural ideas ranging from philosophy to street photography to mental healthcare. In that way, Gross earns more license than he might otherwise. And, fortunately, he is equipped to touch on these other subjects, citing sources as disparate as Rosalind Krauss, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Michael Foucault. There are some moments when his citations are predicatable, such as page 74’s summation of Roland Barthes’ take on pastiche and copy vs. neorealism. Despite Gross being well-read, however, he doesn’t always back up his claims with further explication or evidence: “Positivism functions as an episteme that created a taxonomic language that insinuated itself into what was considered in the twentieth century to be ‘fne art photography.’” (25).
For all the book’s flaws, there is, however, one outstanding chapter which contextualizes Arbus within the art world and broadens that world for readers of every background. “The Body in the 1960s” is a genius chapter, interweaving Foucault, Bruce Nauman, the Vietnam War, and Arbus’s portraits of nudists. Gross is savvy enough to touch upon Arbus’s own “performance:” in order to ingratiate herself to her nudist subjects, Arbus was herself naked during the photography, an element of performance not seen but for the comfort and respect her subjects definitely feel for her.
Diane Arbus’s 1960’s should not be seen as a primer to the photographer’s work, or even a primer to Arbus’s contemporary art world. For those who are already well-versed in the artists and thinkers of her time, however, and are familiar with Arbus’s photographs, Gross has done quite a fine job of yoking together disparate influences of the time, all converging in one of the greatest photographers of our generation.