Book Review – Silent Dialogues: Diane Arbus & Howard Nemerov

  By John Veldhoen

I bought a copy of “Silent Dialogues: Diane Arbus & Howard Nemerov” last week, and it was one of those books that compelled me forward, while I wanted it to slow down. I enjoyed the book, as it seemed to relate to so many thoughts, and opened up perspectives. I have also been reading a variety of things by the late Walter Ong, a Jesuit Priest, philosopher, historian, and professor of English, and some of the parallel insights go far beyond the scope of this tiny review, but remembering Alexander Pope, via Ong, “what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed”, seems an apt summary for “Silent Dialogues”.

The book is ostensibly about Diane Arbus’ relationship to her brother, the poet Howard Nemerov, written by Arbus’ nephew, Alexander, who is Howard’s son. Alexander never met Arbus, but she figured largely in his father’s life, perhaps even more after the famous photographer committed suicide at the age of 48. Howard Nemerov did not care for photography. The medium, to him, was anti-poetic, and sufficed, according to son Alexander, as a “freezer of life… the enemy of all that was mobile and enchanting and fluid and lovely about our short time on earth”. This assessment is very different than other severe criticisms of photography because it focuses the reader on the view that some poets have on what is generally taken to be a merely mechanical operation, and not an art at all. If there is a tendency without this characterization, within the medium of photography, or the moving image for that matter, closer to the human heart, more encompassing the experience of inner life, it did not occur to Howard, especially after he lost his sister, whom it is apparent he loved.

This position challenges any naïve view the reader may have had towards photography, or towards Diane Arbus’ work, and on this basis, I found the book essential. But it is when Alexander Nemerov reflects on the loss of contemporary understanding of meaning, using one of his father’s poems about a picture by Flemish Renaissance painter and printmaker Pieter Breughel the Elder, that I think “Silent Dialogues” transcends mere meditation on medium, and concerns itself far more deeply with the state of Arbus’ mind, and perhaps the ecology of contemporary consciousness itself, mute to describe the nature of its own dilemma, or give praise to a solution. Nemerov writes in a poem “The World as Breugel Imagined It”:

“We get the picture, as we say, although we miss
The shrewd allusion to some ancient remark
That would have told us what we know, and never say”.

Alexander Nemerov then contrasts the poem with another print by Brueghel, from 1559, called “The Allegory of Hope”. In this picture, the world is falling apart, coming to pieces, all is chaos, and yet “Hope”, symbolized by a woman, serene, holding a shovel, and a sickle, stands atop an anchor. I think Howard Nemerov mischaracterized the explicit intent of the picture in a poem called “Hope (as Brueghel Drew Her)”, calling her a “beliefless lady”, but for the same reason referred to in “The World as Breughel Imagined It”, above. Alexander draws more distinction by using a famous quote of his Aunt’s, when in a dream, she felt no hope, and only then felt she could “photograph anything”. As Alexander Nemerov writes, with astonishing depth, like he does throughout this lovely, indispensible little book, “To be a hopeless figure of Hope – to be a “beliefless” figure of belief – was alike for both of them a redemption at the center of things, the poised compensation for the world they saw, which for him no less for her was a “disaster in slow motion”.

“Silent Dialogues” was published by the Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, and includes various examples of Arbus’ work, a diverse selection of paintings by other visual artists, and a selection of poems by Nemerov. It is currently available for sale in-store or online at thecamerastore.com

John Veldhoen

John Veldhoen

In addition to being on our sales team, John curates The Camera Store's book selection and is a contributing author of our blog. He likes to think about photography, talk about photography, and sometimes write about photography.