Born Diane Nemerov in New York City in 1923, Arbus first began taking pictures in the early 1940s. With no lengthy formal training, but a voracious intellectual and artistic appetite, she found her way into classes with two notable photographers, Berenice Abbott and Lisette Model, as well as the legendary art director Alexey Brodovitch.
From 1956 forward, Arbus pursued her own photographic projects. Magazines were her primary source of both income and patronage, though her own curiosities, both intellectual and moral, were the driving force. In 1962, in an application to the Guggenheim Foundation, she produced a telling list of her efforts at the time: “children’s games; sideshows; secret photos of steam bathers; photographs at the beach; movie theater interiors; and female impersonators” (Diane Arbus: Revelations, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2003, p. 141).
From the early 1960s on, Arbus used a twin-lens reflex camera which utilizes the 2.25 x 2.25 inch square film format. A 35mm camera is customarily operated by holding the camera up to one’s face and looking through the viewfinder in order to focus on the subject. By contrast, once focused, a twin-lens camera is generally held at waist level and the photographer’s gaze is directed downward, resulting in a drastically different vantagepoint.
In late 1969 Arbus began work on a limited edition portfolio which she eventually called “A box of ten photographs.” In January of 1970, she moved to an apartment building in Westbeth (Bethune Street) where she knew a number of residents, including photographer Evelyn Hofer and artist Mary Frank. During this period she was actively engaged in a range of projects, and John Szarkowski had arranged for her to be a Museum of Modern Art research fellow for an exhibition tentatively titled The Iconography of the Daily News.
Throughout the spring and summer of that year, Arbus had “been working on the design (with Marvin Israel) and content of her limited edition portfolio and seeking advice on ways to market it.” From her archives, we know that she practiced titles for the portfolio on an oversized, single sheet of vellum paper (ibid., p. 222). Of the ten images that she chose to include in the portfolio, three were made in the first half of 1970. Among them is the famous portrait of Eddie Carmel, which she titled, A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y., 1970.
Arbus met Eddie Carmel ten years earlier, in 1960, at Hubert’s Museum in Times Square where he performed as “the world’s biggest cowboy.” Because of his condition—gigantism and the resulting acromegaly—Carmel found work in carnival sideshows, and was billed at the height of 8 feet 9 inches (268 centimetrs) tall, though realistically, he was more likely around 7 feet 3 (221 centimeters) inches tall. Arbus visited him at his parents’ home in May of hat year, making a standard family portrait, and then again ten years later, visiting him to make the current photograph.
The contact sheet of that particular roll of film from 1970, with its characteristic twelve exposures, portrays a scene not unlike most snapshots of a family gathered in their living room. The grown-up son, squeezed between his two aging parents, stands with his hands on their shoulders, all three standing near the television set, in between the sofa on the left and the arm chair on the right, and facing the camera.
From the third exposure through to the end of the roll, nothing changed. It is just as described above. Yet none of these exposures is the one that Arbus chose to print. The moment that she decided to immortalize as a print—the most powerful exposure on the roll of film—is the very first one, before Eddie and his parents have settled into place.
That first exposure sums it up. Eddie stands hunched over, with a cane in his right hand, bowed by the weight of his uncontrollable circumstance, gazing down at his parents with a look of apology. It is the look of someone aware of the burden his abnormality has caused. His mother cranes her neck upward, listening to what her enormous son is saying, while his father—hands in his pockets—resigned to the strange fate thrust onto his offspring and the family, gazes into the middle distance. In twelve exposures, the father’s hands never leave his pockets. The present work was printed by the artist, signed titled and dated in her own hand.
This iconic image, as we know, was selected by Arbus for inclusion in her “A Box of Ten Photographs,” an unrealized portfolio of images that she conceived during the last year of her life. This work is rare in that it stands outside of any editioning notations, presumably printed before the artist had finalized the portfolio. It is in exceptional condition, with a notation on the verso of the print in the artist’s own hand. It is believed that the inscription is to the sculptor Nancy Grossman, and her partner Anita.
“Photographers can be good, bad, excellent, first rate, or tops, but there are hardly any artists among them. Here is an exception.” Lisette Model