Shulamith Firestone Meets Diane Arbus

This is from Shulamith’s second and final book Airless Spaces, which is basically comprised of tiny portraits of “losers,” many of whom meet in mental hospitals.    Followers of the sad prodigal ladies and the art they make will recognize Diane instantly despite Shulamith’s use of a pseudonym.  This is from a title, btw, entitled “Suicides I’ve Known,” which I’m pissed I never thought of first (although I haven’t actually known any suicides so…)


Before I ever met Yvonne Tree I met her in her work: square, straightforward compositions on the grotesque.  I was a young art student then, and I had a Yashica 2 1/4 camera and I enjoyed composing on it.  She had a strong influence on me, though I stopped short of getting into actual carnival grotesquerie as too sensationalistic.  But the static posed quality of some of her frames affected my own photography –– I am thinking now of her famous twin girls staring at the camera.

When I came to New York and began organizing women’s liberation groups, we were to do publicity for a major piece in the New York Times.  We were offered a choice of photographers and she was one of them.  I was flattered to have such a great photographer assigned to us, and convinced the others that we should go for her.  So we got her.

She was delicate-boned, thin and pretty, if in a mousy sort of way.  What I mean is she did not stand out as strong among the rest of us strapping girls.  One night she accompanied us on  an “action” to retrieve my pay from a withholding boss.  (I was working as a waitress at McGregor’s Garage on St. Mark’s Place.) We ganged up on the boss and I threw a glass of water in his face.  We got the pay.  But Yvonne had stayed outside the whole time, quaking for possible damage to her expensive camera.

When the piece for the Times finally came out, the women were outraged at her photographs, which were of zombielike dykes all alone in a room.  She had used one or two women from another group (who were not even typical) and distanced them in the space.  I guess you could tell they were photos by Yvonne Tree.

I realized my poor judgment in swaying others in her favor when she apologized for the strangeness of the photographs, pleading that this was her “eye” and she was incapable of shooting a normal journalistic picture.  I had rather thought she was doing this assignment for commercial reasons and that she would adapt her style accordingly, but I was wrong.  Anyway, I believed her that she couldn’t help it.

Later she destroyed a whole roll and only that which had been printed with the article on women’s liberation remained with the New York Times.  She, however, gave me as a casual gift one unused print that remained, ruined for any practical use by a large crease across the left corner.  “You’re not a beautiful girl,” she said, “but somehow in this picture…”  And it was true, I looked stunning in the picture, a whole aura surrounded me; I was circled by other women who looked supplementary.  I was wearing a long silver ring on the first finger of my right hand, my “Jupiter” finger –– when I seldom wore a ring –– and generally I read as the leader of the group.

In a taxicab once she had talked a little about the breakup of her long marriage –– she seemed to be about forty at the time –– to a young guy who had launched her on her career as one of the few significant female artists of that era.  Otherwise I had no clue that she was deeply depressed, other than her tearing up the roll of women’s lib shots which were neither fish nor fowl –– neither her usual strong grotesques, nor a good journalistic visual account of what was developing in women’s liberation.

Anyhow, a month and a half later we heard a shocking story: her body had been found in the bathtub, drained of blood.  She had apparently chosen to go by cutting her wrists and then hastening the flow of blood by letting it seep into warm water.  It all sounded gruesome.  I had had no idea she was in such a desperate state.

I held on to the picture as exceedingly valuable.  I hid it in some newspapers behind an old trunk, and then later decided to put it in a cardboard roll in another place I had.  When I came out of the hospital, I had no money, so I called a curator at the Museum of MOdern Art to see if they might not want to buy the picture, one of her last good shots.  But they were content to settle for the New York Times shots, in which I had (gratefully) not been included.  In any case, I checked for the roll of cardboard, and it had been thrown out in my absence.

~Shulamith Firestone, OBM

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