Commentary: Arbus' creepy family photos reflect wartime stress

"Family" is a wonderfully pliable word, referring both to a group of people living under one roof and, more broadly, to any group of things that are more or less alike.

A show of Diane Arbus photographs on display at Kansas University's Spencer of Museum of Art until Jan. 16 reflects family in both senses.

John Pultz, Spencer curator of photography, is one of the show's organizers. He also co-wrote an exhibition catalog, published by Yale University Press, titled "Diane Arbus: Family Albums."

Arbus earned fame in the 1960s and early 1970s for her personality studies, shot for Esquire and other magazines, of celebrities. The show runs an unlikely gamut from atheist Madalyn Murray to those TV icons of bland familyhood, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson.

In 1967, the Museum of Modern Art included Arbus in a three-person show, deeming her work as art. Arbus got excited and wrote to a friend that she was working on a book of photographs with the working title "Family Album," Pultz says.

Comparing herself to Noah, Arbus wrote, "I can hardly bear to leave any animal out."

Pultz and Anthony Lee of Mount Holyoke College, who put the show together, sort the animals on the Arbus ark according to type.

One section is labeled "Fathers." Here you can check out a then-boyish novelist named Norman Mailer or Dr. Donald Gatch, a nattily dressed, pipe-smoking do-gooder standing outside a shanty whose doorway frames Addie Taylor, an African American.

In the "Mothers" section there's Tokyo Rose, a radio propagandist who tried to sweet talk American soldiers into surrendering during World War II, and a Baltimore stripper named Blaze Starr in her way-over-the-top living room.

There are other sections for "partners," "children," and, yes, "families."

These are not happy photos. But they make us think.

In one Ozzie and Harriet portrait, Harriet frowns harshly. It seems bizarre because that emotional coloring wasn't in the palette of the TV show.

Nevertheless, strain did exist among Nelson family members once the boys, Dave and Rick, grew up. In an Esquire profile, son David was especially critical of the family.

Although Ozzie and Harriet were pictured on their lawn, Arbus preferred shooting indoors, often in bedrooms.

She did this with atheist Madalyn Murray, whose family also suffered strain. When son William came home complaining of having to pray in school, Madalyn took the matter to court.

As an adult William became an evangelical Christian who spoke against his mother.

The largest space in the show goes to images from a two-day shoot commissioned by a family of Manhattan socialites.

Pultz says you can see how uninspired Arbus was during long stretches of the shoot -- but then how she locks onto an image that moves her.

In this case, it is of a daughter, Marcella. She stands, still and expressionless as a cat, hair in bangs grown nearly to her eyelids, knock-kneed. Her rigid body radiates anxiety.

If Stanley Kubrick had made a sequel to his horror movie "The Shining," Marcella would deserve a role. The picture's creepy.

And it's not the only creepy one in the show.

One reason may be that these stills were taken at a time when the nation and its many different kinds of families were torn by war.

Diane Arbus launched her ark in a tempest, and the stress shows in the faces of many who are on board.


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