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Diane Arbus - Modern Painters, Spring 2004 - Other Works - A.M. Homes

Diane Arbus: Modern Painters, Spring 2004

Nudist Exposed

'A documentary you said.'

'Yes, a piece, on the photographer Diane Arbus.'

'Was that how you pronounced her name? I always wondered.'

'Can you tell us about the nudist colony photograph?'

'It was a long time ago. I can tell you that much.'


'We were young—though at the time we thought we were getting old—maybe we didn't know we were going to live so long. They put a note up asking for volunteers; at first a lot of people wanted to do it—they were excited about being naturalists, that's what they called themselves. But you have to remember at that time everyone wasn't running around exposing themselves like they do now. A lot of women still wore hats and gloves if they were going out. These people liked the idea of getting a picture taken of them on their vacations—most of them were very ordinary people, except for the nudity. They were schoolteachers, accountants, they worked for insurance companies and big corporatations and as they talked, they realized that if people found out, they might get fired and so on. So by the time the photographer came, not too many people wanted their pictures taken. Some of them hid in their cabins. My husband had just left his job; I think he felt we had nothing to lose. I have to say—it was mostly for the men. Women don't care so much about what people look like naked. The only ones interested in naked bodies were the other men—in retrospect I can't help but wonder if some of them weren't gay. The less women see, the happier they are. At least that's how it was then. It wasn't supposed to be about sex. In fact it was against the rules for the men to get excited, but they couldn't exactly enforce it—I mean what are you going to do? Stiffies that's what we called them. In 1963 we were trendsetters. We convinced ourselves that naked was the way to go. I remember telling someone—your skin was just another covering, just another outfit for yourself.'

'What was it like when Diane Arbus arrived?'

'She wasn't so famous then. She was a fashion person, that much I knew, and I thought it was funny that a fashion photographer was coming to take pictures of naked people. So I dressed up. I gave myself a manicure and a pedicure. She arrived and we gave her a tour, the food hall, the badminton area, the lake with the mosquitoes. And then we came back to the cabin and she asked if it would be all right if she took a few photographs. I'd never had a professional photograph taken. You know that despite the rolls and wrinkles, it doesn't mean you don't think you look like something.'

There is a pause.

'I hated the woods. I never understood why those places had to be out in the woods in the middle of nowhere. Everyone was always getting some sort of rash or bug bite and there was a lot poison ivy. Let's face it, humans weren't meant to run around in the woods naked. I myself am more of a beach person. I spend half the year in Florida. I like the warmth. Arbus...she used to be married to that actor who played the psychiatrist on MASH.'


'Is he still living?'

'He is in Los Angeles.'

'Diane—she didn't make much of an impression except she looked dark, something about her skin, her eyes, looked like it was from the old country, very European.'

'Did you think you were unusual being a naturalist?'

'I don't think anyone thinks of themselves as odd until someone says, "you're odd." At the time, everyone wants to believe they're different, but in the end they're not really—we're all humans, we have a lot in common even if it isn't obvious. That woman, Arbus, had an ability—what do you call it? Uncanny—to take photographs of things you think are hidden or want to keep hidden. Forget that we thought we were naked. I was never really naked until that picture—do you see what I mean? She took pictures of the thoughts, feelings, things you might not even know existed inside yourself. It wasn't that she made you look one way or another, she made you look exactly like yourself. Horribly yourself, whoever you were. Is that beauty? If you can accept it, I think it might be.

'Did you feel beautiful?'

'I felt good-looking. You know she was sort of like an anthropologist, collecting specimens, one of these, one of those, like she was making an encyclopedia. I didn't think about it so much then, but later.'

'What else do you remember about the photograph?'

'I wasn't shaving my legs or under arms. We'd just taken a trip to Europe and none of the women there shaved, so I stopped. I thought I was so sophisticated. But it was a scandal at the colony; it made me seem like a radical.'

'What did you think when you saw the pictures?'

'At first I found them very upsetting. I was embarrassed. I didn't know that's who I was and then later, in private, I liked them. I thought Ok, so this is me, more me than I might want floating around out there, but it was who I am. She called once; I think she wanted to come and take more pictures. I liked her, but after I saw the pictures I couldn't speak to her again—she knew too much, it made me uncomfortable.'

There is a pause. 

'Was there more?'

'Yes, that was the end of being a naturalist for me. After I saw the pictures I went on a diet. I had a little bit of work done to put things in order. In 1967 my husband and I divorced. Some of the people she took pictures of were really strange—have you talked with any others? What do they say? I went once to a show of hers at a museum. It was like a circus. I had no idea. I thought she took fashion photographs. You know who's got something to say—my daughter. She was with us. She's got something to say about everything. Do you want me to get her on the phone?' She picks up and dials. 'Honey. I'm here with the people making the programme about Diane Arbus. Remember, the woman who took the pictures at the nudist colony? I know you have a lot to say about the subject—that's why I called. Let me give you to the director.'

'Hi. We were just talking with your mother about the nudist colony photograph.'

'You want the true story?'


'A freak show. A complete freak show. They all should have been arrested. The camp director told my father that the family should think about taking a different kind of vacation next time because I wouldn't take my clothes off and it "made things difficult" and was "bad for business." I was twelve years old. They all thought I was weird. You couldn't tell who was crazier.'

'What was it like when Diane Arbus arrived?'

'About an hour before she showed up my parents had a fight. My mother was making lunch and it kept escalating; in the end my father had a big glob of mayonnaise in his chest hair and my mother had mustard on her breasts. It was awful. I just wanted to go home.'

'And what about Arbus's visit, how did that go over?'

'Everyone at the colony acted so proud of themselves for something, I don't know what. They were proud until they realized their friends, families, neighbours would see them naked and then they disappeared. They literally locked themselves in until she left and then someone blew the whistle and yelled, "Ollie Ollie Oxen Free." I admired my parents for sticking to it, for letting her take their picture. It certainly captured a certain period in their life.'

'What was Arbus like when she was there?'

'She kept her clothes on if that's what you're asking. And the strange thing was that I couldn't tell if she didn't notice that everyone was naked or didn't care. That part didn't seem to mean as much to her. She noticed the details, people's watches, their shoes, sunglasses. I remember she complimented my mother on a ring she was wearing. The one thing about the nudist colony is that it makes you aware of everything. You notice surfaces, the smoothness of the picnic table, the bark of a tree, the texture of a leaf. You experience the world with your whole body. On the other hand it's not great to be so exposed.'

There is a pause.

'She killed herself.'


'And that changes things, doesn't it?'

'How so?'

'Everyone looks for clues. They want to think that they have the story behind it all. I don't know, maybe it's just better to leave it as it is—even if that means we don't know anything.'

The director doesn't say anything.

'It wasn't that she tried to be understanding—she already had everyone's feelings, she came that way. I still have something that she gave me that day.'

'What is it'

'A secret.'