Just before the lights were turned down at the “talk” by the late photographer Diane Arbus this Wednesday at the Yale University Art Gallery, History of Art Department chair Alexander Nemerov GRD ’92 turned his audience’s attention to what would be the most salient variable of the presentation.
“Some of you may know that I am related to Diane Arbus,” he said, explaining, with the same meticulous theatricality familiar to his scores of HSAR 115 students, that she was his father’s sister, and that she had committed suicide when he was 8 years old. That part is no secret: Professor Nemerov lectures on Arbus’ work, and each of their Wikipedia pages will tell you about the connection. But he continued: “Tonight will be the first time I have heard her voice.”
As the audio recording of the deceased artist (complied from three talks she gave to fellow photographers) crackled to a start in the now totally darkened auditorium, it was impossible not to wonder what this scholar-nephew would experience at hearing the sound of the voice of his artist-aunt.
And what a surprise I imagine it was! Arbus’ speech from the beginning was peppered with ah-ahs, unexpected upswings and cringes in the middle of words, which seemed to dive close to sadness and by the next syllable came back up into the realm of giddy. My expectations — set by a combination of her photographs (giants! drag queens! all the weird of New York City in the ’60s!) and photographs of her, which seem tough and austere — were immediately challenged by her speech’s simplicity, its markers of a socialized femininity, its levity and its humility.
“I think of photography as a mysterious sort of body thing,” she said in one of many moments in which that humility pierced her artists’ aura. “Certain things mean more than others. Our own photographs mean the most … you show them to others and can say, ‘I was there! And you can only see an inkling of it.'” With her famous photograph “Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967” on the slideshow, she said, “I can’t really explain it, that just knocks me out … It’s just identical twins.”
Then she turned to her audience. “Is anyone here a twin?” Evidently, someone in the unseen, half-a-century-forgotten crowd was. “Is it true,” she continued deferentially, “that there is always a stronger and a weaker twin?” The audience member gave some answer. Arbus followed: “May I ask which one you are?” Never, it seemed, must she have passed an opportunity to better understand the world.
Acknowledging her inclination towards the deformed and deviant, Arbus explained: “I think of them as the natural aristocracy — they’ve already lived through something.” But a simple “photographer of freaks,” as she must so often be efficiently described and dismissed, she clearly was not. Her questions pointed to a curiosity much larger than the documentation of society’s cruelty and aberrances — to a search for a fuller whole, a search to find a greater understanding of the texture of society and share it. “I think there are things no one would see unless I photographed them,” she closed. “I do think I have some specific corner on the quality of things.”
When the audio finished and the lights came back on, Professor Nemerov responded to the recording. Two things, he said, had struck him.
“Her voice was a lot sexier than I would have guessed,” he said first, cuing the affirmative laughter that followed. But then he described her words as “floating and refusing to pinpoint,” and “a contrast to what I’ve come to know as serious.” In that analysis lies the distinction between the artist and the scholar, between the creator and the analyzer. Nemerov gave the assessment with the precision of a scholar; he admitted, though, that Arbus’ refusal to reach an economic, distilled “meaning” for her works did not leave the listener wanting. Rather, Nemerov’s observation offers entry into a lesson on the blessings of an unsure view: one can acknowledge one’s inability to master the world precisely, and let the awareness of the futility of that goal guide a visceral and gracious creation.