Diane Arbus: No Blinking

December 29, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Diane Arbus is as famous as any American photographer of the last 50 years and more notorious than most because she was an unblinking witness to the grotesque.

She titled her photographs thus: “The Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents,” “Mexican Dwarf in his Hotel Room,” “Albino Sword Swallower,” “Identical Twins.” Revisiting the work of Diane Arbus in this major retrospective at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, I find something oddly dated, which is to say something less than shocking about many of the images assembled here.

For example, at the time Arbus photographed them, transvestites were a part of some night town tenderloin demimonde. They are not shocking today. In the 1960s, when most of these photographs were taken, Diane Arbus was drawn to subjects at the farthest edges of society, subjects who were exemplars of what she admitted was her private obsession with eccentricity, forms of loneliness, forms of ostracism and hurt and bravery.

Arbus shares with Flannery O’Connor, the southern Catholic writer of her same generation, an attraction to acne-ravaged teenagers, tattooed men, religious crackpots, and circus performers.

Flannery O’Connor’s fictions were as resolutely unconventional, as unpleasant as any Arbus print. Her grotesques were nevertheless channels of mystery and grace and prophecy.

In her forthright connoisseurship of humanity, for example, in her outlandish “Women of Fifth Avenue,” Arbus’ take reminds me of another delighted, forgiving eye, that of Frederico Fellini.

We tend to think of the 1960s as a time of political rebellion, but artists of that era like Diane Arbus and Flannery O’Connor and Frederico Fellini. Tennessee Williams proposed an aesthetic to connect us with humanity’s bizarre variety.

As a character in Tennessee Williams’ “Night of the Iguana” says, “Nothing human is abhorrent to me.” Because we have so thoroughly assimilated that anthem, that aesthetic, these images are less shocking to us today than when they were taken.

We tolerate on our streets and everywhere around us people of every sexual persuasion, every physical and psychological and religious and emotional eccentricity.

What distinguishes Diane Arbus’ sensibility from our own was the intensity of her empathy for the people she saw. I am undecided whether the saints of the world seek out troubled lives or simply do not turn from their gaze.

Arbus was drawn to the loneliness of a life especially evident in company, the loneliness of that couple on the park bench, the singularity of each of these triplets, the bride’s terror.

Notice how powerfully her subjects gaze, with an intensity that mocks our mere curiosity. I’m undecided whether Arbus sought this unblinking eye or whether she was adept at drawing its attention.

Despite the clinical uses of the photographer’s camera — and Arbus’ camera is as clinical as a physician’s eye or a pornographer’s — these are nevertheless showings, revelations as tawdry as sideshow tableaux, and as solemn and as clarifying as mystical visions.

More than once I had a religious sense of pathos as much as awe looking at these photographs. Might this be the way God sees us? After a day spent photographing a forlorn beauty pageant, Arbus wrote in her journal, “Our only hope for Judgment Day is that God judges us for personality in an evening gown even while we are in a bathing suit.” Diane Arbus was attracted to the naked, to nudist camps, whores, strippers, transvestites, body builders.

Nakedness is ultimate vulnerability. I cannot show you any of her many images of nakedness, for despite the daily offenses of television against the modesty of our human souls, there is something inappropriate about photographs of the naked on the evening news. No matter. I will show you a face to represent nudity.

I’m Richard Rodriguez.