Diane Arbus

A Husband and Wife in the Woods at a Nudist Camp, N.J. 1963

1963, printed after 1971

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Artist
Diane Arbus 1923–1971
Medium
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Dimensions
Image: 366 x 366 mm
Acquisition
ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008
Reference
AR00527

Not on display

Summary

A Husband and Wife in the Woods at a Nudist Camp, N.J.1963 1963, printed after 1971 is a black and white photograph by the American photographer Diane Arbus that depicts a naked man and woman standing in the woods. The couple stand holding hands in a small dirt clearing, centered in the frame amid a patch of oak trees. In the background two cabins can be seen through the trees in the left and right of the frame. The woman looks just to the left of the camera and wears flip-flops and a thin cross necklace. She has dark, cropped hair and a curved figure. The man stands on her right, his body turned at a forty-five degree angle, and directs his smiling gaze up above the lens. He has a lean figure, short dark hair and wears no clothing or accessories, but discreetly holds a packet of cigarettes in his right hand.

This photograph is a gelatin silver print on paper shot using a 2¼ twin-lens reflex (TLR) Rolleiflex camera. Arbus began using the 2¼ twin-lens in 1962 after transitioning from a 35 mm Nikon SLR. The 2¼ twin-lens is a larger, heavier camera which is operated a waist level. This meant that Arbus had to configure the scene rather than shoot spontaneously. However, while the TLR restricts the artist’s range and speed of movement, larger format 120 film increases the clarity of detail as compared to the 35 mm SLR. In A Husband and Wife in the Woods at a Nudist Camp, N.J 1963, this is evidenced by the minute details of the scene, such as the leaves on the trees or the corner of the cigarette carton in the man’s hand.

The composition of A Husband and Wife in the Woods at a Nudist Camp establishes tension between the everyday pose and habituated relationship of the man and woman, and their nudity. The clarity of the image and studio portrait style contrasts with their appearance and the forest setting. This tension belies the ethical question at the centre of Arbus’s photographic practice. For instance, in an article entitled ‘Notes on the Nudist Camp’, written for (but not published by) Esquire in 1966 after a visit to the Sunrise Haven Nudist Camp, Arbus noted that, ‘for many of [the nudists], their presence [at nudist camps] is the darkest secret of their lives, unsuspected by relatives, friends, and employers in the outside world, the disclosure of which might bring disgrace. Everyone is known by their first name’ (Arbus 1966, p.69). Despite this concern, the couple in the photograph appear without attempting to conceal their identities, with the man offering a smile. In her photographic practice Arbus often sought out subjects who might be considered ‘outsiders’, and got to know them before she photographed them.

This photograph perhaps also forces a comparison between the nudist camp and the Garden of Eden in the Old Testament story of the Fall of Man (Genesis 3). Art historian Carol Armstrong has compared this photograph with Albrecht Dürer’s engraving Adam and Eve 1504 in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Armstrong 1993, pp.29–33). The two artworks share formal similarities in that each portrays a nude man and woman standing side by side amid natural greenery. However, while Dürer’s work is concerned with a celebration of the ideal human form, Arbus explores the conflict between convention and abnormality. In ‘Notes on the Nudist Camp’, Arbus makes the connection explicitly describing the environment of a nudist camp ‘as if way back in the Garden of Eden, after the Fall, Adam and Eve had begged the Lord to forgive them; and God, in his boundless exasperation, has said, “All right then, STAY. Stay in the Garden. Get civilized. Procreate. Muck it up.” And they did’ (Arbus 1966, p.69). In this regard, Arbus’s photograph is something of a parody of Dürer’s engraving, as Armstrong argues, calling the scene a ‘“mucked-up” Paradise’ (Armstrong 1993, p.31). Arbus does not insist that the couple portrayed are physically ideal or even beautiful. Instead she reimagines the biblical pair as a realistic modern couple in all their imperfections.

In 1963 Arbus shot a series of photographs of nudists which included images such as Young Waitress at a Nudist Camp, N.J. 1963 1963, printed after 1971 (Tate AR00526) and Retired Man and his Wife in a Nudist Camp One Morning, N.J. 1963 1963 (Tate AR00510). In these images, and throughout her work, the contrast between normality and abnormality is a critical theme. With her direct, unapologetic approach to her portraits she explores varieties of human physicality and identity that do not conform to traditional societal expectations. By removing the theatrical veneer of convention and portraying the couple in a manner true to their identity, Arbus challenges the viewer’s expectations of what constitutes a portrait.

Further reading
Carol Armstrong, ‘Biology, Design, Photography: Difference According to Diane Arbus’, October, vol.66, Autumn 1993, pp.28–54.
Diane Arbus, ‘Notes on the Nudist Camp’ [1966], in Thomas W. Southall (ed.), Diane Arbus: Magazine Work, New York 2004, pp.68–9.
Thomas W. Southall, ‘The Magazine Years, 1960–1971’, in Thomas W. Southall (ed.), Diane Arbus: Magazine Work, New York 2004, pp.156–60.

Tessa Rosenstein
The University of Edinburgh
November 2015

The University of Edinburgh is a research partner of ARTIST ROOMS.

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