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She opened our eyes

Photographer Diane Arbus presented a new way of seeing

"The true function of a writer," the British literary critic Cyril Connolly once wrote, "is to produce a masterpiece and no other task is of any consequence." Well, "consequence" is a tricky word. For all that masterpieces are wondrous and welcome things, they are often, quite literally, inconsequential -- artistic dead ends that produce nothing beyond their own intrinsic excellence. The very singularity of a masterpiece can ensure it neither influences nor alters the culture it occurs in.

A higher function of the artist -- certainly a rarer function, perhaps the rarest of all, rarer even than the production of masterpieces -- is to enter the bloodstream of a culture.

One reason it's so rare is it's not something an artist can set out to do. The zeitgeist doesn't take requests, after all, even from the most talented, or persistent, callers. Nor, from the artist's point of view, is entry into the cultural bloodstream necessarily desirable. Absorption can verge on expropriation: What started out as unique and unprecedented can come to seem commonplace and predictable.

Among the many things that make the work of Diane Arbus so extraordinary -- that have kept it so extraordinary despite the passage of three decades since her suicide, in 1971, at age 48 -- is the way it has so clearly become part of our contemporary sensibility without ever seeming like the work of anyone else.

Arbus not only changed what we see -- even a photographer as outrageous as Weegee, that master of tabloid sensation, barely skirted the dark realms Arbus made her own -- she changed how we see. The visual prophetess of a culture that embraces the grotesque and ignores any separation between public and private, she broke through a barrier that has never gone back up. The photographer is much in the news. The New York Times Magazine devoted a cover story to her in September. Last month, there were major articles in The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. A mammoth retrospective, "Diane Arbus Revelations," opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art a week ago. (The closest it will come to Boston will be in spring 2005 when it's at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

The accompanying catalog stands on its own as a remarkable piece of bookmaking, with more than 400 images and an exhaustive 104-page chronology of Arbus's life and work. (For her, even more than for most artists, the two were inseparable.) And a smaller show, "Diane Arbus: Family Albums," is at the Mount Holyoke College Museum of Art through Dec. 7 (see review above).

Arbus made her reputation photographing on the margins of society: losers, misfits, nudists, the mentally retarded, sideshow freaks, media celebrities (a different sort of freak). Her first visit to a nudist camp, she later remarked, "was a bit like walking into a hallucination and not being sure whose it was." That's true of her photographs generally: The people she shows are a distorting-mirror image of society.

There was nothing tentative about Arbus's approach. She didn't just photograph a sword swallower, but an albino sword swallower -- not just the Disneyland castle looking creepy, but the Disneyland castle looking creepy with a swan gliding in front of it. Nor did she make any concessions to the great or famous. In a 1963 portrait, Norman Mailer may be wearing a three-piece suit, but the groggily come-hither look on his face and the way he sprawls in his chair with legs spread make him look like a male Blaze Starr, the stripper (Arbus photographed her, too). No wonder Mailer said, "Giving a camera to Diane Arbus is like giving a hand grenade to a baby."

"People think our depravity is only temporary," Arbus remarked to a friend in 1968. She knew better. Her approach was once rarefied enough to be shown at the Venice Biennale, in 1972. (It's a tribute to Arbus's impact, as well as her artistry, that hers were the first photographs ever exhibited there.) Now it's a staple of the mass media. In content, if not form, Arbus's images pointed the way to reality TV long before any such thing existed.

And it's not just something as extreme as the humiliations of "Fear Factor" or audience participation on "Jerry Springer." Think of something as restrained as the character of George Costanza on "Seinfeld." This pudgy, balding man smoldering with resentment could be the nephew of the women in "Two ladies at the automat, N.Y.C. 1966." Jerry and Elaine are wisecracking yuppies, an unmarried Ricky and Lucy with attitude. Kramer is a classic madcap, a clown worthy of Shakespeare. But George is achingly, nastily normal: the ugly underbelly of the everyday.

It wasn't just the barrier between private and public Arbus broke down. It was also the barrier between marginal and mainstream. She democratized alienation. The Modernist hero ennobled by his or her disaffection from society Arbus makes an everyman or -woman. Such a transformation is at once the apotheosis of mass society and its harshest indictment. The pimply patriot of "Boy with a straw hat waiting to march in a pro-war parade, N.Y.C. 1967" reminds us that the most frightening Arbus images aren't of those who transgress but those who endure.

Provoking outrage Arbus's work inspired outrage during her lifetime. The closest thing in the history of photography to the riot that broke out at the premiere of Stravinsky's "Sacre du Printemps" was the response when New York's Museum of Modern Art exhibited Arbus for the first time, in 1965, as part of its "New Acquisitions" show. There were three photographs, of a nudist family, a nudist couple, and a pair of female impersonators. Each morning custodians had to wipe off the spit that

museumgoers had left on them -- and this at MoMA, the last place one would expect to find any sort of philistine response. Of course, philistinism arises from a sensibility impervious to aesthetic considerations. The outraged viewers at MoMA were responding to an artist's sensibility they took to be impervious to moral considerations. They saw Arbus's pictures as an affront to the society, her subjects, or both.

The first objection is meaningless. Then, no less than now, society might benefit from all the affronts it can get. The second, though, is far more troubling. It is, in fact, the key question facing Arbus's work and remains pertinent today, nearly four decades after it was first raised: To what extent did she condescend to her subjects and exploit them?

Before addressing that question, it's worth remembering the series of surreptitious portraits of New York subway riders Walker Evans took in the late '30s. If American photography has a patron saint, it's Evans. Yet there's something unholy about these pictures, which he photographed in such a way the passengers couldn't know what he was doing. The results are fascinating -- not least of all because they so blithely ignore the issue of violation. It's not that there's anything shameful about the subjects' actions. They sleep or gab or simply stare off into space. But whatever it is they do is personal and not meant to be shared beyond the confines of the subway car. They are not complicit in their own self-revelation.

Arbus admired Evans, and they were friends. (It's disconcerting to realize the master documentarian of the '30s outlived the great '60s subversive by four years.) Still, the idea of her taking the approach Evans did in his subway series is unthinkable. The intensity of her photographs comes as much from her implicit interaction with her subjects as from those subjects' explicit freakishness.

`A fairy tale for grownups' In many cases, that interaction was a matter of necessity. People don't let a photographer into their home to shoot them unan-

nounced, and they're that much less likely to do so than female impersonators or junkies. More than that, though, being with her subjects answered a strong need in Arbus. "Freaks are a fairy tale for grownups," she once said. No one responded more profoundly to the fairy tales she offered than Arbus herself did. Her subjects entered her life even more than she entered theirs. The crux of her work isn't her subjects' uneasiness with what she was doing but rather viewers' uneasiness with it. As Arbus once told a friend, "Photographing is not about being comfortable, either for the photographer or the subject." What she neglected to add was that this applies to the audience, too.

As it happens, an audience is central to "42nd Street movie theater audience, N.Y.C. 1958," which "Diane Arbus Revelations" shows for the first time. It's an uncharacteristic image, taken just as Arbus was about to embark on the work that would make her famous. "42nd Street" is a study in light and dark that owes nothing to psychology, morality, or social considerations. Yet it offers a perfect metaphor for what Arbus was setting out to do.

A shaft of light sweeps out of the projection booth to illuminate -- however fleetingly, however partially -- those in the auditorium. Arbus's camera confronts the darkness in which they sit, striving to reveal who they are. Soon enough, the revelations would be up close, and very personal. Either way, the darkness remained.

The theater could as well be Plato's cave as a Times Square movie palace. That's no idle comparison. The duality between essence and existence that defines Platonism was central to Arbus's major work. Yes, she unleashed all those daunting manifestations of existence on an unsuspecting world. Yet she had her Platonist side, obsessed with essence, seeking a higher, otherwise-unseen reality. It's no exaggeration to see in a phrase she underlined in her Modern Library edition of "The Works of Plato" the fundamental dynamic of her mature work: "A thing is not seen because it is visible, but conversely, visible because it is seen."

All photographers show. Arbus wanted to show and reveal. As a title for her life's work, "Revelations" really can't be bettered.

Toward the end of her life, she explicitly described her work in those terms. "I do feel I have some slight corner on something about the quality of things. I mean it's very subtle and a little embarrassing to me, but I really believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them."

Who can doubt Arbus was right? The passage of time has reduced the capacity of her work to disquiet, but not by much. If anything, the ubiquity of shock and sensation in our culture serves to underscore the abiding purity of her best work. As the director of the first nudist camp Arbus visited told her, "You'll find the moral tone here is higher than that of the outside world."

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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