Unit A, ninth floor feature image
Unit A, ninth floor, Westbeth apartment building, New York, September 25, 2009. Photo by George Webber.
A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know. —Diane Arbus
Diane Arbus was one of the most influential photographers of the twentieth century. She was a tiny woman, delicate, waif-like, with enormous green eyes and a curiosity that drew her into intimate, unseen and forbidden places, where she created portraits of startling power. Her work has challenged and inspired generations of photographers.
In 1967 her photographs were featured in New Documents at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The critic John Gruen described her work as “brutal, daring and revealing.”
Near the end of July 1971, Arbus committed suicide in her New York apartment. The autopsy concluded that she had swallowed barbiturates and slashed her wrists. Arbus’s lover, Marvin Israel, art director for Harper’s Bazaar, found her body in the bathtub. She was forty-eight years old. A year after her death, in 1972, she became the first American photographer to have her work exhibited at the Venice Biennale. Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph (a book compiled by her daughter Doon, and Marvin Israel), which accompanied the Museum of Modern Art travelling exhibition, has since been hailed by critics as one of the masterworks of post-war American photography.
On a Friday afternoon in September 2009, I visited the Westbeth apartment building in the West Village of Manhattan, where Arbus had moved after the breakup of her marriage to Allan Arbus. The building had once been part of a Bell Laboratories site, and was converted into live-work spaces for New York artists in the late 1960s.
The courtyard of the Westbeth is grey and cavernous. I could hear the faint oblique sounds of footsteps and voices nearby. A spacious gallery on the ground floor was filled with large paintings by the artist Paul Muryani, who was sitting behind the desk. I asked him if he had ever heard of Diane Arbus.
“Yeah,” he said, “I was living here on the night she killed herself. The cops said to me, ‘Hey kid, do you want to come in and see this?’ I was about ten years old. I went and had a look.” Paul Muryani was now forty-seven years old, just a year younger than Arbus had been when she died.
Later I spoke with the building manager, who said that Arbus had lived in Unit A on the ninth floor, but he didn’t know the apartment number. He phoned a maintenance man, who took me up to the ninth floor in the elevator.
It was just about 4:00 p.m. when we walked from the elevator along the hallway over to Unit A. The polished linoleum shimmered like the surface of a bathtub. I stopped, held my camera very still and released the shutter.
When I got back to Calgary I looked in my copy of Diane Arbus Revelations, a compilation of Arbus’s work published in 2003, and found on page 207 a little sketch of a floor plan that Arbus had made of her apartment in the Westbeth. She had lived in #945.