Photography: Diane Arbus: Visionary Voyeurism

In illuminating the marginal, Diane Arbus became one of the most influential artists of her time

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If you think you are capable of living without writing," said the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, "do not write." He didn't live to meet Diane Arbus, but if he had seen her photographs he would have understood her right away. Those portraits of sideshow performers and weeping children, her matter-of-fact nudists and naked transvestites, her pictures of "them," her pictures of "us"--something of consequence is at stake here, and it's not just art. Arbus worked at the point where the voyeuristic and the sacramental converge. She lies in wait for your first misstep in her direction. Then she dares you to stare at something--a little boy with a toy hand grenade, a dominatrix embracing her client--until you admit your own complicity with whatever it is in there that frightens you. At that point, all the picture's traps unfold, and it confers its rough grace. Like it or not.

"Diane Arbus: Revelations," the retrospective of her work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is very much like any single Arbus image--powerful and weirdly but irresistibly moving. The last major Arbus exhibition was mounted by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1972, one year after she committed suicide at age 48. The current exhibition, which was co-organized by Elisabeth Sussman, a guest curator, and Sandra S. Phillips, the museum's chief curator of photography, is poised to be one of the blockbusters of the next few years. After it closes in San Francisco on Feb. 8, it travels (and travels) to Los Angeles; Houston; and New York City; then to Essen, Germany; London; and Minneapolis, Minn.

The accompanying book, Diane Arbus: Revelations (Random House) includes a detailed chronology of Arbus' life that was prepared with the assistance of her daughter Doon, who controls the Arbus estate and who long refused to allow writers to use Arbus pictures to accompany their work unless they submitted it first to her for approval. But Diane Arbus is no longer shocking in the way she was 30 years ago. To begin with, the world has changed. (A man with tattoos on his face? Take any bus.) More than that, we've absorbed the lessons that Arbus taught. If she still appears to us in part as the old master of our near universal taste for the perverse and marginal--the Norman Rockwell of our dark side--we understand better now not to think of her as tour guide to the human freak show.

When she photographed a Jewish giant at home with his parents or a Christmas tree in Levittown in fullest bleak regalia, Arbus was situated between complicity and awe, a place where irony is beside the point and mere compassion has been left behind for something like mordant communion. It all makes for some complicated feelings. There's not a false or sentimental image anywhere in this show, yet one of the final groupings of pictures, in which retarded children face the camera to throw us back at ourselves in difficult ways--can move you to places where tears are not out of order. You're just not sure why.

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