A collection of other people's writing

When Diane Arbus died she had no will and, because she was divorced, my younger sister Amy and I, as her children, were deemed to be, according to law, her only heirs. Amy, then seventeen, was still legally a minor, so on October 12, 1971, I was appointed administrator of the estate.

This left me officially in charge and subsequent organizational changes notwithstanding, I essentially remain so. Aside from the intrinsic power of the photographs themselves, much of what has happened to the work of Diane Arbus in the thirty-two years since her death - including this book and the accompanying exhibition - has been contingent on decisions I have made. While I have had a lot of help, advice, prodding, both from individuals and from circumstances beyond my control, the primary responsibility fell to me and, without precisely envisioning what it might entail, I accepted it. The result has been a long, challenging, quarrelsome, passionate, complicated, exhilirating, comical obsessive, one-sided relationship with an absentee.

In the early stages, before the 1972 posthumous retrospective a The Museum of Modern Art, the task seemed straightforward enough: to do what was necessary to make the work as widely available as possible. After that, things changed. She was turning into a phenomenon and that phenomenon, while posing no threat to her, began endangering the pictures. She had achieved a form of immunity but the photographs had not. The photographs needed me. Well, they needed someone. Someone to keep track of them, to safeguard them - however unsuccessfully - from the onslaught of theory and interpretation, as if translating images into words were the only way to make them visible. More to the point, there were often people in the pictures, people who had certainly volunteered to be in them but who, in doing so, had not bargained on getting diagnosed by strangers as mere symptoms of someone else’s hypothetical state of mind. I felt a responsability, not exactly to the people themselves, whom I do not pretend to know, but to the aspects of them that continue to exist in the pictures.

The three previous books of her work, although hardly wordless, were informed by the stubborn conviction that the photographs were eloquent enough to require no explanations, no set of instructions on how to read them, no bits of biography to prop them up. The relevant things about her were in them anyway. Besides, in her absence, the person she was seemed best left to the vagaries of our private mis-recollections, and of little use to anyone in encountering the pictures. Diane Arbus, Diane Arbus: Magazine Works and Untitled were each addressed to something left unfinished by what came before. This book is no exception.

Each successive project, each new attempt at organization, functioned inadvertently as a kind of archeology, unearthing that which had yet remained unnoticed. Unearthing a little whetted the appetite for unearthing more. As it turns out, we kept an awful lot of stuff, partly out of diligence, or superstition, partly out of reverence for the kind of history that survives more or less intact in objects, but primarily to avoid the decisions entailed in doing otherwise. The accumulation of all this evidence, the revelations lurking there, seemed to demand a forum, a safe place for anyone who cares to wander around at will and play detective, to peer into dark corners, to touch things, or circle back, to invent a path without the interference of the tour guide, making independent discoveries, because making discoveries in that way lies at the core of what it’s really all about.

This book and exhibition, by integrating her photographs and her words with a chronology that amounts to a kind of autobiography, do not signal a change of heart, but one of strategy, and a willingness to embrace the paradox: that this surfeit of information and opinion would finally render the scrim of words invisible so that anyone encountering the photographs could meet them in the eloquence of their silence.

Posted on December 7, 2012