Amy Arbus took a master photography class with Richard Avedon at the International Center of Photography in 1992 in New York. She took a single roll of black and white self-portraits in a bathtub, confronted the death of her mother photographer Diane Arbus, who committed suicide in July 26, 1971. In a bathtub.
It had been 21 years since her mother’s death, and Arbus revisited a scene she had never witnessed herself. The result was an intense series of eight photographs, on view at The Schoolhouse Gallery in Provincetown, MA. Arbus discussed this powerful body of work with Another Mag,
“I took a masterclass with Richard Avedon. I didn’t think I would get in. He was interested in work that broke the mold and up until that point I had been doing traditional street fashion portraits for the Village Voice, and I did it in an August Sanderesque way, as simple and straightforward as possible.
When Avedon chose me as one of the 16 students, I was shocked, thrilled, and scared because I knew he was a harsh critic. In the first class, he asked us to go around the room and say our name and to describe an image that would be our self-portrait. Eight of us described someone in water and I thought, ‘Well, that has to be significant. It can’t simply be a Freudian reference to sex.’
I thought about what was necessary to make the portrait, but other than that I was not aware of what I was doing. I didn’t realise until my toe hit the water why I was doing pictures of myself in the bathtub. A lot of time had passed since my mom had died and it was like a lightbulb went off. I thought, ‘Ohh I get it. Here we go!’
It was like a rollercoaster ride because I didn’t know where I was going with it. I just thought about how I felt and how she must have felt and how long it had taken for me to bring this visual to life.”
I’m fully aware that memories change over time and that they get informed by other people’s opinions and the state you were in then and the state you are in now. I would love to say this was a huge [emotional] catharsis but I feel like it was photographically so important for me to have done this work.
It changed my relationship to my subjects. I became a teacher after I studied with Avedon and it totally informed my teaching, and it made me take photography a lot more seriously because I understood that it had the power to reveal how people feel.
I was worried about how I looked because I wasn’t used to seeing myself that way at all. In my artist’s statement, I wrote, ‘When I saw the photographs I was surprised and embarrassed because they were so unflattering. They weren’t like nudes, they were naked and raw. But I came to realize that they were full of stark contrasts: fitful yet lifeless, violent yet sexual, and maternal yet innocent. They were unlike anything I had ever done.’”
Amy Arbus: Tub Pictures is on display at The Schoolhouse Gallery in Provincetown, Massachusetts, through August 8, 2018.
Amy at “Tub Pictures” opening. Photo, Amy Touchette
(Photos, Amy Arbus; via Another Mag)