We asked Tanya Marcuse to tell us about a picture that means something to her, and why. Her exhibition Woven is on view at the George Eastman Museum through January 5, 2020, and her new book Fruitless | Fallen | Woven (Radius Books) was published in July.
It’s 1982, and I’m in the lower level of the library at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, where I started college early at 16. It wasn’t that I was precocious. Quite the opposite. I struggled my first semester, but I had begun to engage, to care. Second semester I’d hoped to take a drawing course, but it was full and, disappointed, I took photography instead. A few weeks in and I’m changed. A pile of nails spills on the floor – a magnet enters – all the nails point in one direction.
I pull books off the shelf: Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and then I see Diane Arbus. Her iconic 1972 posthumous Aperture monograph. I find A child crying, N.J. 1967. There is no “composition,” no golden ratio, but a tight square frame of a girl sobbing. There are suggestions of a bigger world – a park bench, trees – but Arbus has zeroed in with attention, both tender and cold; the world inside the photograph is absolute, complete. The girl’s eyes brim over with tears that stream down her cheeks forming two distinct droplets. Each teardrop catches the light, has its own dimension. The child’s open mouth forms the darkest black of the photograph, a cavern. Her cry suggests a pain beyond a dropped ice cream cone or missed nap. The glints of light, first her eyes, then her tears, bring us to the sheen of a single button of her knit sweater fastened to the top. This small formality is a counterweight to the overflow of expression.
I wasn’t very happy back then; I identified with the child (as well as with Arbus). But I saw that photography offered a language with the possibility of wholeness (oneness even) between form and content, expression and restraint, looking out and looking in. And that, for me, was salvific.