Diane Arbus sounded giddy, recalling her visit to the projects on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. At the School of Visual Arts in New York last month, the Aperture Foundation was playing a compilation of 1970s audio recordings of the photographer talking about her work at an event dubbed “A Slide Show and Talk by Diane Arbus.” The apartment buildings looked like any other public housing complex in New York, Arbus said, but behind the apartment doors was an unknown world. She found her time with the midgets there “terrific,” she said. (The soundtrack to the slide show is the only original recording of Arbus that exists; it was drawn from an ICP lecture, a class talk at the Westbeth Artist Community and an interview by Studs Terkel for his book Hard Times.)
Arbus giggled. Her voice was loud and clear yet sweet and spontaneous. She talked fast, following her mind’s rapid turns and twists, and suddenly stalled, in awe of her characters. “Oh, and that’s just a family in Brooklyn,” she said. Pointing to the Ideal Marriage book on the shelf to the husband’s right in the photo, she added, “You could tell it didn’t work very well.” More giggles. A few minutes later she recounted her experience of walking around naked at a nudist camp. “I wish I could slip into something comfortable,” she said she’d thought. Her audience roared in the background. Arbus comes across as naïve yet aware of her photographs’ tragic dimensions, their blind spots and their absurdity.