Photo credit: All photos were snapped by Vicky Oliver
For me as a city kid, Central Park was a forbidden Eden. Even though I grew up a stone’s throw from the park, my parents forbade me to walk there, even chaperoned, even in broad daylight. And so, it’s all the more astounding that I recently found myself trotting—no, tearing over—to see the new statue of Diane Arbus in Central Park.
As a young girl growing up in the city, Diane Arbus didn’t have overprotective parents monitoring her every move: she went to Central Park by herself all the time. By contrast, my three parents—my mother, my father, and my soon-to-be-stepfather—were a chorus of agreement about the dangers of the park. “Don’t go! Don’t go!” they warned, much like a Greek chorus prophesying impending tragedy. They weren’t worried about what I might step on in the grass as much as what human terrors lay in wait for me.
To be clear, Central Park was not the arboreal oasis it is now. Back then it was considered a paradise mainly for muggers. People were regularly held up at gunpoint. Reports of rape were commonplace. At Bethesda Fountain, drugs were sold routinely. Duck Pond contained more beer and soda cans than mallards and wood ducks. So instead of playing in the park, which is what I’ve always imagined most city kids do, I was ordered to take a red rubber ball and smash it against a building a few doors down for two hours, three times a week. Alone. Just me and my thoughts pounding out to the bam-bam-bam! of the ball.
I was an only child—what today would be considered a “latchkey kid”—since my parents all worked. During my early days of playing ball by myself, I developed a resilient outer skin—which has turned out to be an asset in my adult life as a writer—not to mention strong arm muscles. However, I am fairly certain that no one appreciated me for who I really was. This was likely the reason I soon started keeping a diary like my role model, Harriet the Spy.
Diane Arbus would have understood my feelings of isolation. According to the book, Diane Arbus by Patricia Boswell, “[Arbus] felt still and empty inside and then would go off by herself to the Metropolitan [Museum of Art] and stare at the El Grecos.” A classmate of Diane Arbus’s recalls how “we’d see her sitting by herself reading a book of poetry in Central Park.”
Fortunately, not everyone in my family agreed that smashing a ball against a building was the optimum childhood experience. My great (and wonderful) Aunt Lynne was the antithesis of a rules follower and she instilled in me the same.
When I turned six, Lynne took it upon herself to show me the gems of the city, and along with Radio City Music Hall (where her sister Trixie danced as a Rockette) and the rows of Christmas trees along Park Avenue standing upright like toy soldiers, Lynne determined that Central Park was a wonderland every child must see.
The feeding of the sea lions was the first stop, followed by a mandatory trip to Penguin House. Next, we marveled at the Delacorte clock with its whimsical bronze animal sculptures—including a goat playing the pipes, a penguin on drums, and an adorable hippopotamus playing a violin. At the top of the hour and at the half hour, the monkeys seated at the top of the clock would bang on their cymbals and all the animal statues would twirl. After that, with Lynne holding my hand, we were off to see the statue of Alice in Wonderland atop her mushroom.
I was enrolled at an all-girls school, which was determined to shelter its students against the terrors of the city—including boys—for as many years as humanly possible. Nevertheless, there were carefully chaperoned outings to Central Park, which always involved a visit to Alice. Today, decades later, my classmates sometimes still gather at the statue of Alice in Wonderland to celebrate reunions. When we were growing up, Alice was the closest thing we had to a statuary role model.
Diane Arbus and I Become Each Other’s Subjects
I approach 60th Street looking for Arbus; bearing right to that bend off of Fifth Avenue that insiders know as the Doris C. Freedman Plaza where they erect temporary art displays.
She’s here! She’s here! For a moment, the old, familiar, parents-instilled fear emerges and I worry about opening my bag near the park. Then, caution be damned, I reach into my bag, pull out my mobile, and start snapping photos of the eminent photographer of the twentieth century. She’s holding a camera—so it’s meta. I’m snapping a photo of her about to snap a photo of me. We are each other’s subjects.
Soon I’m joined by others. “There she is!” cries a woman. “God, I almost missed her.”
Everyone is taking her photo, walking around her to catch a different angle, excited.
And yet, there’s a palpable murmur rising from the crowd—none of whom strike me as tourists—that because Diane Arbus is standing on the sidewalk (rather than on a pedestal) one could easily overlook her. Somehow, she appears more diminutive than I thought she would, especially for someone who had such an outsize influence on twentieth-century photography.
Again, I’m reminded of a line I read about her in the biography by Patricia Bosworth: “She’d creep into a room or onto the street with her cameras and you almost couldn’t see her. You forgot she was there. She blended into the scenery.”
A fashion photographer by trade, Arbus was ultimately recognized for her work that captured so-called “misfits, deviants, and eccentrics.” Her wide range of subjects included strippers, carnival performers, nudists, giants, dwarves, bearded ladies, a headless woman, and identical twins shot to almost resemble Siamese twins.
By capturing photos of people on the fringes she vastly expanded the list of subjects that it was acceptable for photographers to snap. She made it okay to get your freak on.
I smile, wondering if I’m the misfit for being so excited about the arrival of this five-foot-six-inch bronzed inanimate object or if she’s the misfit because today—over one hundred years after women won the right to vote—she’s still only the second statue in Central Park to portray real women. (The first one, unveiled in 2020, depicts Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.)
Over the next few weeks, the meta experience between me and Arbus deepens. I visit the Arbus statue a second time, then a third, then a fourth. I come see her at different hours of the day. I stop taking pictures. I start to feel the way Arbus must have when she was getting to know her subjects. First, she’d befriend them, and only later photograph them.
I catch a couple kissing in front of her, oblivious to her lens. I see yogis stretch right in front of her—as if she is snapping their photo. I become obsessed with learning more about her—her interests, her inner life, and above all, her empathy.
As a writer, I ask myself how I can bring some of that Arbus -energy into my own work. How can I go deeper with the characters that I create to show their humanity? I’m a second-year MFA fiction student at The New School, and one of my teachers uses my story’s antagonist as a craft lesson for how to make the monsters we create on the page more lovable. Meanwhile, in my prose class, we’re reading Proust, who treats all of his subjects with empathy. Together, Arbus and Proust are expanding me as a writer. My heart feels fuller, but heavier.
Three days after watching Fur, an art film about Arbus, it strikes me that the word “fur” refers not only to the furry man-beast the Diane -Arbus character (played by Nicole Kidman) has an affair with in the film, but also to Russeks, a glitzy Fifth Avenue department store started by her grandparents (and run by her parents). Russeks once sold furs but has long since shuttered.
In Infinity magazine, one of her photography spreads was titled, “The Eccentric as Nature’s Aristocrats—rare and precious people as seen from the inside as they would have themselves be seen.” But eccentric or not, isn’t that what we all long for—to be seen and appreciated from the inside?
A Stroll Down Memory Lane
After my fifth visit to the Diane Arbus statue, I decide to walk through the park. I remember how my mother and stepfather’s restrictions on park visits actually intensified once I switched to a co-ed school on the Upper West Side, where, indeed Central Park was the straightest path back home. By then I was doing what teenagers will: ignoring adult concerns.
I’d arrange to meet friends at the statue of Alice in Wonderland; boyfriends by the statue of Hans Christen Andersen. On Saturday afternoons, I would meet large groups of classmates at the statue of Shakespeare or Walter C. Scott or Robert Burns, then traipse off to Sheep Meadow to toss a frisbee.
It was somewhat later, in between writing essays about some of these same literary figures for English class, that I began to notice there were no statues of actual, bonafide women in the park. There were precious few role models in literature, too.
In school, the canon was totally lopsided. For every ten Shakespeare plays, we’d be assigned one Edith Wharton novella (and not even tested on it). Women writers were shunted aside so that we could read the so-called masters: Bellow, Hemingway, and Nabokov.
Fortunately, the literary canon has changed dramatically since I attended high school. Hemingway is out; Jane Austen is in. Mark Twain is out; Harper Lee is in. Middlemarch by George Eliot (née Mary Ann Evans), which was never considered a part of the literary canon, is now sometimes declared the greatest work of literature in the English language.
And the literary canon is not the only thing that’s altered, I think as I admire Central Park’s springy lawn and can-free Duck Pond where a Great Egret elegantly canvasses for food. Soon a Blue Heron joins in the hunt. Today Central Park is the crown jewel of the city.
A swell of New Yorkers passes me, some masked, some not, during this third Covid wave. Next to the statue of the Bard, a musician blares Taylor Swift’s song “Shake It Off,” and some dance, while one man disdainfully plugs his ears.
During this impossibly long interval since high school, my father and stepfather have both died and my mother is now married to her third husband. These days, I’m more likely to be the one who’s worried about her walking in the city, but it has nothing to do with human terrors—only her precarious balance.
As I leave the literary walk, I pause to gaze at the statue of Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Those women appear larger than life; by contrast, Diane Arbus feels lifelike and down-to-earth.
Maybe that’s the reason why I look upon her as a kindred spirit. Someday I hope, before not too many more decades roll by, there will be statues of other women in Central Park who touch me the way she has—especially since the statue of Arbus is on loan from the Public Art Fund only until August 2021.
Vicky Oliver, an M.F.A. candidate at The New School, is the author of six bestselling books, including Bad Bosses, Crazy Coworkers and Other Office Idiots (Sourcebooks, 2008) and 301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions (Sourcebooks, 2005). She writes novels about the early women’s suffrage movement. She is an Editorial Intern at Public Seminar.