Diane Arbus

Bishop by the Sea, Santa Barbara, Cal. 1964

1964, printed after 1971

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Artist
Diane Arbus 1923–1971
Medium
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Dimensions
Image: 360 x 370 mm
frame: 619 x 619 x 19 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
AR00533

Not on display

Summary

Bishop by the Sea, Santa Barbara, Cal. 1964 1964 is a black and white photograph by the American photographer Diane Arbus. The image depicts an older woman wearing a shimmering floor-length white robe and a billowing white veil. A delicate caged crown perches on her short, curly hair and a large white pendant hangs around her neck. Both hands are outstretched and in her right hand she holds a large white cross that is decorated with eleven smaller black crosses. The figure stands on a grassy cliff, punctuated by flowers, which cuts diagonally across the frame below a slightly tilted horizon line. In the background a body of grey water stretches uninterrupted to the horizon of an overcast sky that dominates the upper third of the image.

The photograph is a gelatin silver print shot using a 2¼ twin-lens reflex Rolleiflex camera, which Arbus began using in 1962 instead of her 35 mm Nikon SLR. The change in equipment marked the beginning of a new phase in the evolution of Arbus’s style and her approach towards capturing her subjects. When using the Nikon SLR Arbus would crop and manipulate her negatives to focus on a particular figure or scene, thereby closing the distance between subject and viewer. In 1958 Arbus began experimenting with unmediated negatives and stopped cropping them altogether. Her shift to the heavier 2¼ camera, which is operated at waist level, also meant that she could no longer work spontaneously. As curator Sandra Phillips has observed, ‘the intimacy Arbus once sought from cropping was now usually earned through a direct relationship with the subject … The 2¼ camera lent itself to a more direct relationship with the subject of the picture … As a result, the making of the picture becomes a deliberate process that requires the subject’s cooperation and participation’ (Phillips 2003, pp.52–9). In this way Arbus began to make the effort to connect with her subjects on a personal level. She would spend days, sometimes years immersing herself in the communities that she was documenting. In the case of this photograph, Arbus spent a day visiting Bishop Ethel Predonzan of The Cathedral of the Creator, Omnipresence, Inc. in her home in Santa Barbara, California. While it did not appear in the article, this photograph was shot while Arbus conducted research for her photo-essay, ‘The Full Circle’, published in Harper’s Bazaar in November 1961. This article contained photographs of ‘five singular people … invented by belief’, as Arbus wrote (Diane Arbus, ‘The Full Circle’, Harper’s Bazaar, November 1961, reprinted in Doon Arbus and Marvin Israel (eds.), Diane Arbus: Magazine Work, New York 1992, p.14). These five were notable for being ‘outsiders’, fascinating to Arbus for their eccentricities, and she was drawn to Bishop Predonzan for similar reasons.

Bishop by the Sea, Santa Barbara, Cal. 1964 is a direct yet affectionately rendered portrait of an eccentric individual. Curators Sandra Phillips and Philip Charrier have singled out this photograph as an example of Diane Arbus’s patient, deeply felt process of portraying the nuances of the subject before the lens. In her 1964 article ‘The Bishop’s Charisma’, Arbus reflects on her visit to Bishop Predonzan’s home in Santa Barbara, stating that she ‘followed the Bishop across the country to hear her story and to listen to God’s voice on a 45 rpm record’ (Arbus 1964, p.48). She recounts the Bishop’s claims to an elaborate supernatural history of past lives as the elder sister of Jesus Christ, the wife of Moses and Joan of Arc, among others. Charrier considers Arbus’s research on Bishop Predonzan to be illustrative of ‘Arbus’s approach as a long and patient courtship oriented towards earning the trust of the person she wanted to portray’ (Charrier 2012, p.434). Indeed, Arbus’s journalism can be seen as having a close relationship with her photography, as she used both mediums alongside each other to deepen her understanding of her subjects.

This photograph is indicative of Diane Arbus’s overarching curiosity for varieties of human experience. In the early phases of her artistic career Arbus was fascinated by illicit freak shows (in works such as Fire Eater at a Carnival, Palisades Park, N. J. 1956 1956, printed after 1971, Tate AR00517, and Jack Dracula the Marked Man, N.Y.C. 1961 1961, printed after 1971, Tate AR00570) and photographed people who skirted the edges of conventional society (Girl Sitting on Her Bed with Her Shirt Off, N.Y.C. 1968 1968, printed after 1971, Tate AR00551). By the mid-1960s Arbus focused on misfits in a broader sense, exploring the eccentric details and habits of diverse individuals, although her practice was not a formal sociological study. In the scope of Arbus’s work Bishop Predonzan falls under the subcategory of ‘Spiritualists’ or ‘Sensitivies’. Throughout her career Arbus pursued projects, commissioned and personal, exploring social spheres, from celebrities and intelligentsia (see Writer Susan Sontag with her Son, David, N.Y.C., 1965 1965, Tate AL00192) to those isolated as a result of their choice of lifestyle (Retired Man and his Wife at Home in a Nudist Camp One Morning, N.J. 1963 1963, Tate AR00510).

Further reading
Sandra Phillips, ‘The Question of Belief’, in Diane Arbus: Revelations, exhibition catalogue, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco 2003, pp.50–66.
Diane Arbus, ‘The Bishop’s Charisma’ [1964], in Thomas W. Southall (ed.), Diane Arbus: Magazine Work, New York 2004, pp.48–52.
Philip Charrier, ‘On Diane Arbus: Establishing a Revisionist Framework of Analysis’, History of Photography, vol.36, no.4, 2012, pp.422–38.

Tessa Rosenstein
The University of Edinburgh
November 2015

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

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