Francine Prose, Doon Arbus, and Michael Cunningham host an evening on Diane Arbus at MoMA

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Diane Arbus ()
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The words-to-picture exchange rate is famously unfavorable—so the PEN World Voices Festival set itself a daunting challenge in placing Diane Arbus’s photography opposite her “precise use of language” for a slideshow screening and panel discussion Saturday night.

The slideshow, at least, was an impressive piece of archival handiwork. In 1970, Cornell Capa (who later founded the International Center for Photography) asked Arbus to give a lecture for a group of fellow photographers. The result was a casual, revealing presentation of her work and ideas. After Arbus’s suicide in 1971, an audio recording of the talk was acquired by her estate—and in 2005, to coincide with the traveling retrospective Diane Arbus Revelations, the estate reconstructed the slideshow, matching her words with the images they describe. The result is a master class from beyond the grave, which has been shown publicly only a handful of times.

Saturday’s screening at MoMA was presented in conjunction with the PEN Festival, and so required a literary connection. Following the 40-minute slideshow, Doon Arbus (the artist’s eldest daughter), novelist Francine Prose (who once wrote about Arbus for Harper’s Magazine), and novelist Michael Cunningham (whom Prose recommended for the event) read excerpts from the artist’s papers, then spoke about her relationship to language.

Neil Selkirk—the only authorized printer for the Arbus estate, and one of the three people who assembled the slideshow—apologized in his introduction for the quality of the audio.

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“Can you hear me?” begins Arbus, speaking over a blank black screen.

The roughness of the recording—ambient noise, audience reactions—gave it immediacy. Arbus’s photograph of “A young Brooklyn family” initially appears backwards; the talk pauses to reverse and refocus the slide, an effect the reconstructed slideshow dutifully replicates. Arbus met the family’s mother on the subway, she says.

“She’s one of those people who’s always told she looks like Elizabeth Taylor,” Arbus says, and she sort of does—“that’s her fable.” Arbus went on to meet the woman’s family, which included a husband, a baby, and a child Arbus first describes as “mongoloid” before correcting herself: “retarded.” The parents she describes as childlike, “rudimentary.” They had a copy of a book called The Ideal Marriage on their shelf, Arbus recalls, bemused.

“They were so incredibly inarticulate,” she says.

The slideshow includes some of Arbus’s collection of newspaper clippings (twins at a pie eating contest, freaks in the National Enquirer) as well as her own photos—of nudist camps, sideshows, Manhattan apartments. “Terrific” is Arbus’s adjective of choice. Photography she describes as “a sort of naughty thing to do.” About some of her best-known images, she’s coy.

“That’s just a kid with a hand grenade,” she says, showing her famous picture of a boy wearing overalls and a deranged expression. “He was just exasperated with me.”

Following the slideshow, a squad of museum employees arranged chairs onstage, and without preamble, Francine Prose began to read. She was very solemn. After a brief excerpt from Arbus’s writing, Prose paused to say that they had planned to do away with formal introductions—but for the sake of clarity, she went ahead and identified herself, Cunningham, and Doon Arbus. There would be no post-panel Q&A, Prose said, because the texts were “self-explanatory.”

Doon Arbus gazed fiercely into the audience from beneath a cloud of hair. She wore flowing black garments. Prose and Cunningham wore pants and jackets and, in Prose’s case, polka-dot socks.

Prose had selected an excerpt from a paper on The Canterbury Tales that Arbus wrote her senior year in high school. In it, Arbus describes Chaucer’s narration as “calm and tender.”

“You get the feeling that he is a little bit beyond them”—his fellow pilgrims—“but doesn’t want to seem so.” Chaucer looks on people as “whole miracles,” she writes. “Each one will always be himself, and he wants that.”

Cunningham said he had picked out “A few things Arbus wrote about families,” which he read with great flourish. “I think all families are creepy, in a way,” Arbus wrote. And, of a photograph that shows a family lounging on its Westchester lawn: “The parents seem to be dreaming the child, and the child seems to be inventing them.”

“My turn,” said Doon, who read an excerpt from another high school essay—this one on Plato—which found her mother commenting on “the differentness, the uniqueness of all things.”

To begin the discussion, Doon turned things over to Prose, suggesting that she speak about words as the “footprints of a person.” But Prose chose instead to speak about adjectives: Arbus was very good with them, she said.

The panelists spent much of their time agreeing that Arbus was very great.

Cunningham said that anyone who could come up with the line about the parents dreaming the child and the child inventing the parents “is a writer.”

“I feel so tiny right now,” he said.

“I can’t even take a photo on my phone,” Prose said.

Arbus even had a good personality: Cunningham noted with surprise that the voice we’d heard in the slideshow was “more fun than I thought she’d be!”

Prose praised the freshness of her vocabulary.

“If Chaucer knew the word ‘terrific,’ he would have used it all the time,” Prose said.

Cunningham hazarded a bit of speculation on Arbus’s relationship with her subjects.

“I feel like there should be more about me in this discussion,” he began, saying that when he wrote he tended to start from point of “disdain,” inventing his characters’ worst qualities, then defending them and gradually falling in love with them.

“My narcissism is starting to show—“ he said, before trying to liken himself to Arbus.

"No," Doon responded; her mother was “the opposite.”

It was hard not to bring a fixed idea of Arbus to this kind of discussion. During the slideshow, Arbus has to insist that a newspaper photo of a criminal in a slip actually depicts a woman: her recorded audience naturally assumes it's a man in drag.

Mortality is the preoccupation of the selection of clippings. In one picture, figures face a wall, hands over their heads.

“That’s in Warsaw,” Arbus explains. “Jews about to be executed.”

Another was a candid photo of a happy couple on a couch, which ran in the newspaper after their murder.

“The photograph doesn’t actually forecast anything,” Arbus says. But its power lies in “being so goddamned still while everything else is moving.”

This was what Doon later summarized as her mother’s “incredible faith in reality.”

“It really was like that,” Arbus says as she goes through the clippings, “and now it isn’t.”