Disability Seen Through Photographs, Darkly

Pepper Stetler

Illustrations have been omitted from this essay due to the fees required by the Arbus estate to produce the photographs discussed. The author hopes that her written descriptions may serve as partial substitutes for the absent images. Readers may also consult the
Aperture monograph and photographs included with the hyperlinked references.

Between 1969 and 1971, Diane Arbus made frequent visits to several homes for people with intellectual disabilities. By then Arbus had made a name for herself as a commercial photographer and a rising artist who captured awkward moments of delicious spontaneity. Her photographs of men in drag, nudists, and twins blurred the boundary between different and normal, but she had not yet photographed in a place where difference was so institutionally defined. Arbus networked with social and professional contacts to obtain permission from the New Jersey State Board of Control of Institutions and Agencies to visit several homes beginning in July 1969. The Vineland Developmental Center was (and still is) located in a quaint town with rolling green hills and spacious lawns. Before its name was politely shortened, it was known in the early twentieth century as the New Jersey State Institution for Feeble-Minded Women. The Vineland Training School for Backward and Feeble-Minded Children opened in 1906 and was located nearby in an equally pastoral setting. Under the leadership of Henry H. Goddard, these institutions developed as places for scientists to study those who lived there, not for the education of the “feeble-minded.” Goddard acquired a national reputation for his research in mental deficiencies. The Vineland Training School was one of the first institutions in the United States to adopt the system of intelligence testing developed by Alfred Binet in France known as the IQ scale. While Binet emphasized the potential to improve intelligence through education, Goddard approached intelligence tests as a way to identify an innate and undesired hereditary trait. Goddard’s belief in the genetic deviance of mental deficiency led him to advocate for the confinement of his patients, to prevent the propagation of “morons.” Goddard coined the term from a Greek word meaning “foolish.”

When I look at the Untitled series, the photographs that are the product of these visits by Arbus to Vineland, this history is all I see. My daughter has Down syndrome but leads a much different life than the people in Arbus’s photographs. She goes to school and learns beside her peers in an inclusive classroom. She is learning how to be a friend, and her friends are learning how much she can contribute to their lives. Every day I see her work through a range of emotions that are a part of human experience. She wants a Band-Aid for every bump or scratch, no matter how minor. She takes forever to get out of the bathtub. She loves to tell knock-knock jokes. In other words, she is a seven-year-old human. I expect her to grow up to have the complex pleasure of being an adult who contributes to her community in meaningful ways. Yet I can’t help but imagine that my daughter would be living in a place like Vineland if she had been born fifty years earlier. The people whom Arbus photographed were probably separated from their families when they were born. Their mothers and fathers were most likely told that they would be too much of a burden to raise. However, none of this is really what we are supposed to be thinking about when viewing the Untitled series. We are told to think about the compositional choices, the lighting, the true talent of Arbus who discovered these subjects.

The Untitled series stands as a subset of Arbus’s work, yet its boundaries and definition remain in flux. Arbus died in 1971 after titling and printing only a few of the photographs, and her intentions for the scope of the project were unclear. It has been left up to the estate of Diane Arbus and her daughter, Doon, to decide what constitutes the series. Doon Arbus gave the series the proper name of Untitled, acknowledging its inchoate state at the moment of her mother’s death but also enfolding an uncertainty about labels and titles into the project itself. Published by Aperture in 1995, the Untitled series includes fifty-one photographs. Most of the people Arbus photographed appear to have Down syndrome, though they were never labeled by Arbus as such. In the afterword, Doon Arbus mentions that “the photographs were taken at residencies for the mentally retarded between 1969 and 1971.” The volume does not include numbering, a checklist, or captions that might have provided more specific information. The catalog that accompanied the retrospective of Arbus’s career in 2003, Diane Arbus: Revelations, includes many of her letters and diary entries and provides some insight about the project. For example, Arbus wrote in 1969: “The book about the retarded ladies really excites me. […] it’s the first time Ive [sic] encountered a subject where the multiplicity is the thing. I mean I am not just looking for the BEST picture of them. I want to do lots.” Her subject was manifold but intentionally undefined. The recent presentation of the Untitled series in late 2018 at the David Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea followed the estate’s example of making only general references to its setting. This version of the series included sixty-six photographs. In a gallery space that I associate with the imposing size of Richard Serra’s sculptures, the series appeared as a massive, limitless project.

The Untitled series is an extension of but also separate from Arbus’s earlier work. The series continues her career-long search for the flaw, which was her term for what troubles comfortable distinctions between normal and other. Parts of the Untitled series have appeared among other selections of her work in publications and exhibitions. Fourteen photographs from the series were a part of the now famous retrospective organized by the Museum of Modern Art in 1972. They were displayed alongside her other photographs but titled differently. When scanning the exhibition’s checklist, Untitled (6) or Untitled (11) read like moments of eerie glitches interspersed with Arbus’s other titles, which often manage to be simultaneously precise and blunt: Loser at a Diaper Derby, N.J.; Triplets in their bedroom; Hermaphrodite and a dog at a carnival trailer, Md. Arbus’s approach to photography seemed to defy the rules of composition. Through off-center arrangements, tilted horizon lines, blurs, smears, and other “mistakes” of printing, she photographed in a way that made space for guileless moments. Some of her photographs, like Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C., suggest a volatile neurosis that lies underneath the surface of daily moments of American life. In Untitled (39), two women stand left of center in the awkward beginnings of an embrace. One woman glances up to the sky and grabs the other by the neck. The gesture looks uncomfortable, but not exactly menacing; the hands and expression of the woman in the front register that she has been taken by surprise. Unlike the tense hands of the child in Central Park, which read as signs of a disturbing tantrum, the same kind of grip in this photograph suggests an unmalicious, yet uncontrollable violence that recalls Lennie’s tragic compulsions in Of Mice and MenWhile most of Arbus’s work might be read as a celebration of unguarded moments and the ability of photography to reveal a social unconscious, such an approach in the Untitled series solidifies what we already believe to be true, that people with disabilities are pitiable, but unpredictable, potentially a risk to themselves or others. 

The language and terms that Arbus used in her private letters and journals from this time contrast with the nameless, untitled references in later exhibitions and publications. Her notebooks read like the notes of an anthropologist recording the discovery of a new species, eager to name, identify, and describe. Five pages of observations and impressions include: “Rosalie has saucer eyes and the body of a doll you cant [sic] tumble, and humility…. Phyllis is the one with glasses and large lips. Solemn intelligent mongoloid.” In early August 1969, Arbus wrote to her daughter Amy to report, “Some of the ladies are my age and look like they are 12. I will show you in the pictures.… They are the strangest combination of grownup and child I have ever seen.” 

Arbus’s observations perpetuate the common way in which people with disabilities—people with Down syndrome especially—are described as having a childlike sense of purity and innocence. In this way, she echoes Goddard’s recommendation in his 1919 study, Psychology of the Normal and Subnormal: “Treat them as children according to their mental age, constantly encourage and praise, never discourage or scold; and keep them happy.” Also like Goddard, Arbus classified her subjects. In November 1968, she listed in a notebook three categories under the heading “retarded”: “Morons 50–69 Imbeciles 20–50 and Idiots under 20.” The meaning of the note is unclear, though the numbers correspond to the IQ scores of people classified into intelligence hierarchies in systems such as Goddard’s during the early twentieth century. In a letter to a friend in December 1968, Arbus wrote, “I would like to photograph mentally retarded people, idiots, imbeciles and morons (morons are the smartest of the three), especially the cheerful ones.” Her use of these terms communicates a specific frame of knowledge about her subjects. While known today as pejorative put-downs, these terms were a part of an intelligence taxonomy, diagnostics of a pathology that distinguished deviance from normal intelligence and has its roots in the pseudo-science of Goddard and his work at Vineland. I don’t mean to suggest that Arbus intended to address this history explicitly, yet her approach in the Untitled series is informed by this hierarchy. To a significant degree, she saw her subjects through the lens of such systems of identity, systems that marked these humans as different and inferior.

Since Arbus’s death, discussions of the Untitled series have prolonged this discomfort with publicly naming and identifying her sitters. Because Arbus never told us, most do not know what to call her subjects, which causes a bumbling of language that betrays the talents of otherwise exacting writers. When the Aperture volume was published in 1995, Hilton Als drew attention to the “flat mongoloid faces” in Arbus’s photographs of the “mentally retarded,” but then tells us that we need to move past them to see her sensitivity to the expressive power of clothing, clearly a knack picked up during her years as a fashion photographer. The art historian Carol Armstrong sees Arbus’s gravitation to differences, replications, and mutations within sameness as analogous to the photographic medium itself. But the Untitled series disturbs the comfort of metaphor and formal analysis. At the beginning of her essay in October in 1993, Armstrong notes the repeated request by the Arbus estate to not refer to the Untitled series as representing people with Down syndrome. To comply with the request, Armstrong settles on “mental retardates.” Her use of this belabored term (not quite labeling them retarded, and unsure of what to otherwise call them) is set in quotation marks, indicating that the term is not exactly her own. The resulting text is tinged with the issues of naming Arbus’s unnamed sitters but ultimately holds them at arm’s length.

Uncertain about what to do with these nameless subjects, authors avoid them altogether and instead focus on analyzing formal properties like light and composition. On the occasion of the 2018 exhibition at David Zwirner, critics commented on the dream-like setting of the Untitled series. One critic asks us to marvel at the indescribable light that Arbus captured with her camera. A short video on the painstaking printing of Arbus’s negatives after her death is included on the gallery’s website. While the secrets of her technical process are carefully pursued, details about the lives of her subjects, where they lived and how they lived, are kept out of sight. In his laudatory review of the exhibition, Arbus’s biographer Arthur Lubow manages to harness relatively respectful language in his passing reference to her subjects, but then describes them as “archaic as the figures on a Greek vase.” Arbus is praised for “scrubbing off the journalistic or sociological details of the institutional settings.” Lubow celebrates this cleansing of facts, in both the ethereal glares of light in the photographs and the lack of specific information that accompanied the exhibition. While her subjects are called archaic, angelic, and retarded, rarely are they called humans or people.

When my daughter was born, a doctor visited my hospital room and told me that she wanted to point out some features of our baby. At first, this struck me as quaint. In my daze of exhaustion and happiness, I somehow thought it a celebratory routine for a doctor to identify features of a baby like a salesperson going over the bells and whistles of a new car. The doctor identified the crease in the middle of my daughter’s palm, the skin folds in the corners of her eyes, her low muscle tone. Then she explained that these features led her to believe that our baby had Down syndrome. Arbus’s Untitled series attempts a similar diagnosis of disability that vacillates between the happiness and fear I experienced when my daughter was born. I recognize a shared appearance between the people in her photographs and my own child, yet these similarities do not clarify what Down syndrome is. The Untitled series captures simple actions—playing, frolicking, holding hands—and I suppose these actions communicate what Arbus and her supporters called archaic and cheerful. My daughter is, admittedly, rather cheerful. But I would like to think this is because she has a fulfilling life—with parents that love her deeply, with friends and challenges and new experiences—not that cheerfulness is somehow linked to her chromosomal count. There are other signs of Down syndrome that I do not recognize in her photographs at all. The unkept gowns and dirty faces caught in expressions of sinister paranoia are not familiar to me. The way in which Arbus sees disability through photography is different than how I see it in my daily life, and those who have addressed the Untitled series have allowed Arbus to see and define disability for them. As a scholar of the history of photography and a mother of a child with Down syndrome, I hold a position of historical perspective and moral concern. And I do not believe that these positions ought to be kept separate. Simply put, I want to take the authority to speak about Arbus’s Untitled series away from those who can write the term “mongoloid faces” without pain or pause.

It is difficult to know what to call the places where Arbus photographed. The changes in the names of places like the New Jersey State Institution for Feeble-Minded Women over the twentieth century follow changes in how we make sense of the existence of such places. Without the traces of their eugenic roots, names like the Vineland Developmental Center suggest an embrace of progress in the ethics of care and a recognition of the humanity of those who are residents in these places. But such changes also betray an uncertainty about and discomfort with the process of naming itself. The complexities of naming can also hide, confuse, and conceal. The changes enact a sanitization equivalent to the “scrubbing off” for which Lubow praises Arbus’s photographs.

Goddard called it a colony. While the term seems more appropriate for the study of race rather than disability, in the early twentieth century the two discourses were related, both born from a desire to classify and hierarchize humans. Those who occupied Goddard’s colony and those who occupied imperial colonies were both denied agency due to the assumption that the colonized are not developed enough—culturally or cognitively—to produce their own identity. In a study published in 1912, Goddard advocated for investing in colonies "to take care of all the distinctly feebly-minded cases in the community” and to improve the quantifiable intelligence of the human race. Given Goddard’s use of the term “colony,” I have come to think about Arbus’s journeys to Vineland in relation to the primitivist encounters with objects of African cultures by artists like Pablo Picasso in the early twentieth century. Reflecting on his visits to the Musée d’Ethnographie in Paris, Picasso claimed an affinity with the masks he found on display: “I understood; I too am against everything. I too believe that everything is unknown.” Picasso’s art was borne from a problematic identification with the outsider and an experience of being both fascinated and terrified by that status. It was, of course, a status that had everything to do with Picasso and nothing to do with the cultures from which these objects originated. In her career-long search for the flaw, the uncontrolled, authentic essence of a person in front of a camera, Arbus engaged in a similar pursuit. According to letters and those who have mythologized her work, Arbus found exactly what she had been looking for at Vineland—an unbridled freedom, a state of guileless joy that casts aside the common interest of human subjects to control how they appear in front of the camera. “FINALLY” she wrote in an account of Vineland, “what I’ve been searching for.” 

I cannot tell if all the people in Arbus’s photographs have Down syndrome. Many of the photographs in the Untitled series were taken when Arbus attended a Halloween party at Vineland. The people are wearing costumes, and their homespun masks do not let us see their faces. People with Down syndrome can often be identified by certain physical features, but here those features are replaced with the cutout shapes of brown paper bags. These masks conveniently allow Arbus to avoid addressing her subject explicitly, providing the chance for her and her estate to deny that the photographs represent people with Down syndrome and to avoid taking responsibility for knowing much about the lives and experiences of her subjects. Instead, all her subjects are lumped together into a playful frolic in a natural paradise—a setting and a masking that recall painted scenes of pastoral pleasure, joyful respites from the complexity of modern adult life.

The curatorial presentation of non-Western cultures in Western museums has undergone many important moments of reckoning and reflection since Picasso’s days in the Musée d’Ethnographie, though important parts of the shared history of colonizer and colonized are yet to be told. No longer is it acceptable to present objects like those encountered by Picasso as totemic fetishes in musty rooms, as objects both terrifying and exciting, but, most of all, as inspiration for the Western artist’s genius. Yet, in the case of Arbus and the customary presentation of her work, it remains acceptable for people with disabilities to be discovered as opportunities for aesthetic breakthrough. The celebration of Arbus’s artistic discovery is made at the cost of reinforcing harmful myths about people with Down syndrome. Never mind that stereotypes of people with Down syndrome, such as the childlike simplicity that Arbus celebrated in her photographs, was instilled by the low social and cultural expectations still prevalent in the 1970s. As the thinking of Goddard and his followers went, people with Down syndrome would never be able to develop beyond a state of innocence, never be able to experience the full complexities of adult life, never be able to lead independent lives, so best to keep them in seclusion, skipping through fields of their own natural naiveté. 

What Arbus discovered at Vineland was as much a technique as a subject. And conveniently, the celebrated light effects were found by accident: “I mean I don’t know if the strobe didn’t fire or did or if it was just like a fill in but they are very blurred and variable, but some are gorgeous.” In such comments, Arbus pivots away from subject to technique. In her afterword to the Aperture edition of the Untitled series, Doon Arbus writes, “She recognized in these pictures something new, something she had been searching for for a long time.” This involved, according to Doon, “certain elements of a style and technique.” It also involved seeing only what she wanted to, and this selectivity continues in the hagiographic way in which Arbus is celebrated today. Critics consistently focus on the photographs of residents outside and draw conclusions based on the freedom that such a setting seems to communicate. Arbus captures her subjects frolicking and playing in some innocent pastoral fantasy. The horizon line sits far away in the distance, across a field in which these people stand or sit. The line that cleanly separates field from sky pushes bodies down and leaves heads exposed in front of a vast sky. The composition is meant to impart a sense of dream-like freedom. The landscape looks familiar, yet strange; the proportion between figure and ground seems jarringly exaggerated. In some of the images, the horizon line runs askew and supports the overall scene of some sort of topsy-turvy carnival.

But actually, not all photographs in the series were taken outside. Scattered through the series are photos of people in interiors. These images show lacquered brick and linoleum floors that read as iconic signs of institutional confines. Untitled (40) is one of these interior shots. Four people occupy different positions in a windowless room with an overhead light. On the left, a girl stands in between a doorway and a Radio Jet wagon. The whites of her eyes glow in the flash of the camera. The camera angle makes the ceiling look oppressively low and the size of this girl proportionally wrong. In the center of the room, another figure lies on the floor in a pose that suggests some sort of convulsive fit, with an upturned chair resting on the person’s knees. In the back, another figure bends forward in a chair. To the right, the fourth person is cropped but appears to rest his head on the table of a cafeteria-style bench. These four people occupy a shared space, but the impenetrability of their distinct psychological worlds is also emphasized through the deep and strange proportions of the room. In the way that Arbus held her camera opposite this unfolding scene, the room appears askew. The camera is angled slightly into the corner, and the joint of the ceiling on the opposite wall is not parallel with the picture plane. Bare walls with chipping paint, dirty corners, and metal picnic tables are hardly the stuff of dreams worth discovering.

The problem with discovery is the suggestion that it was impossible to photograph these people in any other way, that there was no opportunity for dignified humanity to be captured. I have a hard time believing this, but if it’s true, the tragedy of institutionalized life has taken that away from them. Instead of drawing our attention to this, Arbus naturalizes their dehumanization. “This is how it is,” is how Doon Arbus celebrates her mother’s approach, and the photographer’s choice is mistaken as truth. 

Arbus’s work and its continual presentation as a discovery of purity trouble me as a mother, but also as a historian of photography. We seem to be witnessing the heightened fetishization of the camera image. This nostalgic turn to the aesthetic of the analog deep in the moment of the digital forsakes the social and ethical responsibilities of the medium. This celebration of the transcendence of photography echoes Arbus’s original reception in the early 1970s, when the medium was acknowledged and welcomed into museums and art historical discussions. Susan Sontag addressed the nature of photography to instill any subject with a sense of beauty in her essay, “America, Seen through Photographs, Darkly.” Sontag argued that Arbus’s work is the ultimate corruption of such a pursuit, one in which a search for beauty is perversely confused with voyeurism. While Arbus tries desperately to say something about the human experience, her attempts, according to Sontag, “rule out a historical understanding of reality.” Sontag does not specifically address the Untitled series, but what is at stake for the writer is a particular version of America—bleak and nihilistic—embodied in the people in Arbus’s photographs. Sontag sees Arbus’s work as a troubling depiction of America. “Instead of showing identity between things which are different […], everybody is shown to look the same,” she writes. I see the Untitled series as having a troubling position within that depiction of sameness, in that it seems to wash away our ability to acknowledge and be sensitive to the differences of others. The political mood referred to by Sontag persists today as an unwillingness to engage with certain subjects outside of a rhetoric of light and discovery, which is exemplified by the resistance of writers and curators to address the realities of the people whom Arbus photographed in the Untitled series. 

Sontag’s words are disregarded now. Moral issues of ambivalence and complexity are currently unfashionable, and there is a growing consensus that Sontag was too hard on Arbus. The journal entries and letters published recently by the Arbus estate in 2003 seem to absolve the photographer of malicious intent. But I am not interested in judging her character. I see Arbus’s actions—her pilgrimages to Vineland, her photographs, and the way she talked about her subjects and her work—as complicit in the compulsory institutionalization of people with developmental and intellectual differences. Demonizing her would overlook a larger and more productive opportunity that an historical perspective can provide. I am willing to accept the ambivalence of Arbus’s photographs—that they were not taken from a place of cruelty or explicit ridicule. But I do think that her work at Vineland was unfortunate. And I am not willing to accept the terms in which her work, especially the Untitled series, is now presented. Arbus’s photographs need not be kept from sight, but they need to be contextualized. The time when people with Down syndrome were put in institutions without options or alternatively bright futures of inclusive classrooms and meaningful work is over—at least in the United States, and I thought, or at least hoped, so too was the myth of primitivist discovery, which the current way of presenting Arbus’s encounter with disability only perpetuates.