Book: Diane Arbus: A Biography

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“Walker called Diane a huntress. He admired her daring, but couldn’t understand how she was able to go so fearlessly into the underworld of New York… He’d always been attracted to and repelled by lowlife, but he had ‘Victorian barnacles’ on him, he said; couldn’t shake them off. How did she do it? Diane admitted to being exhilarated by danger. Her obsessive search for adventures, for strangeness, was a way of escaping both boredom and depression; she suffered a lot from depression, she said.”

She continued to fight periods of helplessness and hopelessness, and would succumb to crying spells. When she gave in to her despairing moods, there was no reaching her; she would withdraw behind a wall of dazed silence which could last for hours. These periods came and went; they were more severe than the depressions she’d suffered in the past. To alleviate them, a male colleague supplied her with an anti-depressant, an “upper,” which he would first break open, then shake onto his palm; she would lick the powder off. She was extremely sensitive to any stimulant—she could drink neither coffee nor tea nor liquor—so she tried to be very careful about drugs, never relying on them, let alone experimenting with them.

She did smoke pot and she’d tried LSD once, but with disastrous results—she’d had a horrific hallucination that whirled her head around for days. She disliked watching what was happening to people around her on pills—photographers like Dick Hyman and Mark Shaw ultimately died from too many “Dr. Feel Good” shots. And she was a friend of Tiger Morse, the skinny designer who ran the Teeny Weeny boutique on 73rd Street. Tiger created psychedelic fashions: paper dresses, silver boots and motorcycle suits, vinyl skirts with “HATE” on one side, “LOVE” on the other. Tiger ate amphetamines like candy—“I’m living proof speed does not kill,” she used to say.

Since Diane’s relationship with Walker Evans was essentially a formal one, neither of them discussed their depressions or the drugs they took (“although Walker tried everything to combat his despair,” his wife says). To forget, he would tell Diane how he admired Flaubert—how he often read passages from Madame Bovary before going off on an assignment. Literature influenced Diane, too, but in “an oblique way,” she’d say. Some stories were actual photographs to her, like Kafka’s story “Investigations of a Dog.” She called it “a terrific story written by the dog—it’s the real dog life of a dog.”

One evening Walker Evans talked to Diane about being a voyeur—a fantasizer. He even had a special trunk to keep his pornography collection in. It wasn’t much—“feelthy” photographs he’d bought in Paris; a film of a woman taking a shower which he thought was quite arousing. He liked 1920s pornography—he liked the Bellocq pictures of prostitutes Lee Friedlander had discovered in New Orleans. Modern porn was too clinical—modern porn wasn’t naughty or perverse or playful enough—modern porn turned him off.

He had never been able to photograph anyone nude, he said. Diane told him about photographing an orgy in a New Jersey motel “where everybody sat around eating peanut butter on crackers before they fucked.” She’d found out about the orgy from a swingers’ newspaper. It was a artworks depicting the Seven Wonders of the World were unveiled on the south wall of the lobby of the Empire State Building (where they remain to this day). The panels, five by seven feet in dimension, depict the Great Pyramids, the hanging gardens of Babylon, the statue of Zeus, the temple of Diana, the tomb of King Mausolus, the Colossus of Rhodes, and the lighthouse of Pharos. The eighth panel depicts the Empire State Building itself.

At the ceremony Paul Screvane, president of the City Council, threw a light switch illuminating the panels in all their brilliant translucent colors. In his speech he noted that thirty-five thousand people visit the Empire State Building every day—more visitors in a single year than the combined total of all who visited the original Seven Wonders of the World throughout recorded history.

Renée says, “Mommy came, but Diane and Howard didn’t.” As far as she knows, they never saw the Seven Wonders of the World—“although they always had a good excuse.” But she was hurt.

Years later Susan Sontag commented that for many photographers “class is the deepest mystery—the exhaustible glamour of the rich and powerful, the opaque degradation of the poor and outcast—social misery has inspired the comfortably off with the urge to take pictures…in order to document a hidden reality that is a reality hidden from them.”

Plastic “stained glass” is a technique Sparkia invented which exploits optical methods using a combination of new plastics that have varying refractive indexes that are lighted from behind and achieve a true third-dimension impression.

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