On Wednesday night, the Yale University Art Gallery hosted “A Slideshow and Talk by Diane Arbus” in its MacNeil Lecture Hall. Despite the absence of the noted American photographer herself, who died in 1971, the talk drew a large audience that filled the auditorium.
The talk featured a 1970 audio recording of Arbus presenting a lecture on her work, followed by a panel discussion between art history professor Alexander Nemerov GRD ’92, photographer Neil Selkirk of the Diane Arbus Estate, and Jeff L. Rosenheim, curator of photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Nemerov, who is Diane Arbus’ nephew, introduced the lecture, noting that the recording, which is owned by the Diane Arbus Estate, has been played in public fewer than 10 times. The recording was pieced together using clips from a lecture that Arbus gave on at least three separate occasions, in which she shared her photographic inspirations and commented on her own work. An accompanying slideshow displayed the photographs Arbus referred to during her original lectures.
In the recorded lecture, Arbus shared anecdotes about the creation of her photographs, which featured images of murder victims, convicts, nudists, children with toy hand grenades, people suffering from gigantism and transvestite prostitutes. At several points, Arbus interacted with her original audience — when the recorded lecture attendees laughed at a picture of a nudist, she interjected, “I don’t know what’s so funny.”
Selkirk, who studied with Arbus and is today the only person authorized to reproduce her photographs, said that he does not believe Arbus was happy to speak to an audience.
“She was very ambitious and wanted to be seen in the upper echelon of photographers, so she needed to have a public persona,” he said. “But she was really wishing she wasn’t there.”
In the recording, Arbus said of her own work, “I do it because I think there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them.”
She also discussed the permanent nature of a photograph, which often outlives its subject. Regarding images of a murdered couple, she said, “They were living and breathing and they took a photo, and the photo’s still here and now they’re dead.”
Arbus herself, whose voice is preserved in the recording, committed suicide 41 years ago. Zachary Bell ’14 said that it was interesting to hear Arbus describe her photographs in her own words and discuss why she felt it was worthwhile work.
The talk was co-hosted by the Art Gallery, the Yale School of Art and the History of Art Department.