When avant-garde photographer Diane Arbus visited Hollywood trailblazer Mae West at her Santa Monica home in 1964, two forces of feminism collided. It’s unknown what exactly transpired during their severalhour interview and photoshoot, however Arbus’s eventual portrait and accompanying story indicate it was anything but ordinary.
Both icons of 20th century art in their own right, Arbus and West matured from entirely different generations of Americans, and schools of feminism. Both women grew up in New York and were shaped in similar and dissimilar ways by their city. While Arbus sought to remain invisible – in order to draw the most out of her subjects – West wore a façade of costume and make-up so robust Arbus described it as ‘impregnable shellac’.
They were both driven by their passion for work. For Arbus, this meant leaving the world of commercial photography to pursue photography as art. For West, this meant putting her career above and before any relationship. In an interview with Charlotte Chandler in 1979, West confessed that her deepest, most unbridled love affair – despite the hundreds of affairs she had experienced in her lifetime – was with the stage. She said, ‘Do you want to know about my first love affair? It was when I was five. I made my debut in Brooklyn at the Royal Theatre. It was my first love affair with my audience, and it’s lasted all my life.’ In West’s interview with Arbus, she admits to never allowing a man to spend the night in her bed. She said no man was ever able to match the adoration she’d found at age five. ‘I ached for it, the spotlight.’
Crossing boundaries was at the core of both West and Arbus’s endeavours. West was famous for the way she was seen, while Arbus was famous for the way she saw. West spoke candidly about sex and women’s part in it, while Arbus photographed what fascinated her and frightened others. Both were heralded as geniuses and equally shunned as exhibitionists. In 2003, Judith Thurman wrote for The New Yorker, ‘Looking at Arbus’s work, one has that visceral shock of the forbidden. It’s creepy not because her subjects are handicapped, loony, hideous, bizarre, sad, or perverse (though most of them are) but because there is something fundamentally taboo about the way she bares their primitive substance without their seeming to know it.’
Susan Sontag was among Arbus’s most famous critics, going so far as to say her suicide was an extension of her persistence to prove that her work was sincere; as if taking her own life was a sure-fire way to dissolve any claim of exploitation orvoyeurism behind her lens. The cause of Diane Arbus’s death will never be fully understood; such is the nature of suicide. In a letter to her friend Carlotta Marshall, three years before her passing, Arbus wrote: ‘And it is so goddamn chemical, I’m convinced. Energy, some special kind of energy, just leaks out and I am left lacking the confidence even to cross the street.’
Among Arbus’s supporters, however, was fellow photographer Joel Meyerowitz who described her as ‘an emissary from the world of feeling. [Her subjects] felt that [she cared] and they gave her their secret.’
Like Arbus, West spent a large part of her career defending her cause and confronting the hordes of conservatives who spurned her work from start to finish. In 1926, her play Sex landed her in prison for ‘corrupting the morals of youth’, although spending eight days behind bars functioned as an excellent PR stunt for West, whose celebrity only grew in the wake of her incarceration. West’s commitment to fight for her sexual freedom and expression cemented her as a unique identity of the women’s liberation movement.
Unsurprisingly, West had her critics as well, including publisher William Randolph Hearst, who used his far-reaching newspaper conglomerate to denounce her work and deride her image, asking ‘Isn’t it time Congress did something about Mae West?’
Given their age gap and dissimilar approaches to artistic expression, it’s not entirely surprising that Arbus and West clashed. Of their meeting, Arbus wrote,
‘West is nourished by her own legend…She is imperious, adorable, magnanimous, and genteel, almost simultaneously,’ showing her conflicted opinion of the Hollywood sex icon. West was said to deplore the finished photographs Arbus took of her and remained resistant to interviews thereafter, especially with female journalists.
One thing Arbus and West seemingly had in common was their ability to ignore those who pilloried them. They were steadfast in creating new art, and both produced large volumes of it, often at great sacrifice to their public image.
Indeed, both women found salvation in their work, clinging to it firmly when the tides of 20th century sexism beat up against their efforts. They were both rumoured to be neurotic, demanding, selfish and selfserving, which prompts questions of how the rampant misogyny of the eras they lived in influenced their practices. Their response? They just kept working. West re-wrote each film-script she was handed, as well as writing dozens of her own original scripts. It’s widely believed her films kept Paramount Studios afloat during the Depression. And Arbus went from high-end commercial photoshoots to an increasingly subversive documentation of Americans who’d previously been hidden, helping to document the story of a nation at crucial moments of social change throughout the 20th century.
Regardless of their opposing approaches – Arbus coaxed, framed and re-framed, while West deconstructed, reconstructed and rewrote the rulebook – both women made art their refuge. By creating the work they did, they provided salvation for millions of followers and fans who also found meaning in their creations. Arbus and West dedicated their lives to exploring the intersection of life and art and celebrated what it means to go against the grain. They took risks, and between them captured a view of a never-before-seen America. They weren’t always careful in their approach, sometimes causing pain in their pursuits as artists and social anthropologists, but both of their legacies are immense and undeniable
Arbus, Diane (1984) ‘Diane Arbus: Magazine Work’, New York: Aperture
Chandler, Charlotte (2009) She Always Knew How: Mae West, A Personal Biography,
Thorndike Press large print biography
Sontag, Susan (2009) ‘Susan Sontag on Photography’, Penguin Books
Thurman, Judith (2003) ‘Exposer Time’, The New Yorker, October 13 issue
Lubow, Arthur (2003) ‘Arbus Reconsidered’, The New York Times, Sep 14 issue
Bavar, Michael (1975). Mae West. Pyramid Communications p. 87
Heinlein, Sabine (2011) ‘The Other Arbus’, Tablet Magazine, November 14
Published on 20 February 2019