Laurel Nakadate on Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph
This is part of the feature “PhotoBook Lust,” a collection of writing on photobooks and desire by artists, curators, and writers, first published in The PhotoBook Review 006. Read the Lust introduction by guest editor Bruno Ceschel.
PBR 006 will be shipped with issue 215 of Aperture magazine. Subscribe here.
Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph
Fortieth Anniversary Edition
New York, 2012
Everything that needs to be said has already been said about this book, this record, this heartache, this brave account, this body of evidence. I didn’t choose to write about this book because I feel that I can say anything more eloquent than what has already been said. For example, on the inside flap of the fortieth-anniversary edition, John Szarkowski, Richard Lacayo, and Peter Schjeldahl say it all, with precision, humility, and compassion. So I will not try to tell you what this book means to the world. I will attempt to tell you what it means to me, or rather, what it meant to a fourteen-year-old me.
In 1990, I was a freshman in high school in Ames, Iowa. I had never held a genuine art book in my hands. It was Ms. Gugel, the art teacher, who changed that. A former student of hers, who’d moved to New York City, had mailed the Arbus monograph to her after seeing the posthumous retrospective at MoMA in 1972. And so: Arbus’s book was a message in a bottle sent from a giant, mythic city, somewhere in the East, very far from Iowa, and that message contained portraits so rich with ache and hopelessness and psychological high-wire acts and death defiance that after I turned each page and reached the end, I knew I would never be the same. I was obligated to go through the usual routine that day after seeing the Arbus monograph. But how could homeroom, pep rallies, and the eight periods of my high-school life mean anything after looking into the world of Arbus? How could I not make immediate plans to find my way to this world that she described? If someone else, some other kid from my town, had made it to New York and found this book and sent it back, how could I not try to get there too?
The young couple on the bench in Washington Square Park, the boy not really in love anymore but the girl still using the label, and all the babies are crying babies, the middle-aged women with their faces framed tightly and wrinkling in the sun, nudists in a living room on a sunny morning, a young Brooklyn family called a family only because that’s what you call two adults with children, and a woman with her baby monkey—it should be so funny this woman with this monkey, but it isn’t, and so it hurts more than it would have had we never expected happiness. How is it that Arbus is able to tell us all how much we want and how much we will have and will not have? And how does she manage it in the pages of one book, one monograph, bound after she was already gone? Had I never seen this book, I might never have made it to New York.
Laurel Nakadate is a photographer, filmmaker, and video artist based in New York.
The PhotoBook Review is a publication dedicated to the consideration of the photobook—focusing on the best photography books being published, from the coffee-table book to the handmade artist’s edition, and on creating a better understanding of the ecosystem of the photobook as a whole.