How Amy Arbus Confronted the Death of Her Mother, Diane

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From the series, Tub Pictures© Amy Arbus, courtesy of The Schoolhouse Gallery

21 years after her mother took her own life in a bathtub, artist Amy Arbus stepped into her own, to confront the buried trauma of her family history head on

In 1992, Amy Arbus took a masterclass with Richard Avedon at the International Center of Photography in New York and embarked on a project that would forever change her relationship to the medium. She took a single roll of black and white self-portraits in a bathtub, where she began to confront and consider the death of her mother Diane Arbus, who committed suicide in one on July 26, 1971.

Then 38 years old, it had been 21 years since her mother’s death, and Arbus set about revisiting a scene she had never witnessed herself. The result was an intense series of eight photographs, which will be on view in Tub Pictures at The Schoolhouse Gallery in Provincetown, MA, from next week until August 8, 2018. We caught up with Arbus to discuss this powerful body of work, and the ways in which it transformed her life.

On studying with Avedon...
“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.’”

On stepping into the deep end...
“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.”

On revisiting a scene she had never witnessed...
“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.”

On the vulnerability of the self-portrait...
“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.’”

Tub Pictures is on display at The Schoolhouse Gallery in Provincetown, Massachusetts, from July 20 until August 8, 2018.