a young woman, pregnant and semi-naked, stands in her bedroom, next to a tripod supporting the large format camera with which the photograph was taken. a blurry reflection of a reflection. the woman tilts her head to one side as if puzzled. the image is a little known self-portrait, by and of, the photographer diane arbus. it is tempting to regard this as portent. a metaphor for the body of work she was to produce over the next two to three decades, and a reflection of the narcissistic, obsessive gaze which seems to be the force behind her collected output.
there are commentators who assert that in this photographer’s parade of outsiders, deviants, rejects and oddities, what we are looking at is not the subjects themselves, but the reflection of her own tortured perceptions.
at the v&a, ‘diane arbus: revelations’ (until 15th january 2006) brings together over 200 vintage photographic prints, together with documents, negatives, a reconstruction of her darkroom, her cameras and notebooks, accompanied by a book of the same title, in the largest retrospective of her work in the last thirty years.
all of the iconic images are here: ’jewish giant at home with his parents’, ‘boy in central park holding toy hand grenade’, the dwarves, transvestites, nudists, strippers and oddballs, what she called her ‘freaks’, a term far more shocking in these days of pc language, than it was then. the influence which the work of diane arbus has had on succeeding generations of photographers since her suicide in 1971 at the age of 48, is immense. this influence, however, can never be seperated from the controversy which her work continues to provoke.
perhaps more than any of her contemporaries in american photography she emerged reflecting the fractured and un-nerved mood of her generation, standing out as an artist of a haunted and disturbing vision. in photographs which question everyday assumptions about identity, normality, and respectability, her work also reveals much of the particularity of the time of its making. there is the 1968 image, ‘an empty room, nyc 1968’. on the tv stand in the corner, alongside a ceramic prancing horse, there are photographs of the kennedys, jack and bobby. there is an american flag on the wall, another photograph of jfk alongside a family graduation photograph. the image is redolent of its time, powerfully so when seen forty years on.
there is ‘boy with a straw hat waiting to march in a pro-war parade, nyc 1967’. is it satire? the boy looks both earnest and dorky. his conservative bow tie and straw hat looked quaint even at the time, the lapel pin ‘bomb hanoi’ spits hate at the viewer, he holds the stars and stripes in his right hand. yet in the boy’s eyes there is something forlorn, melancholy. such melancholy pervades the entire body of work, particularly in photographs of ‘normal’ subjects, who in her hands become every bit as grotesque and unsettling as her beloved cavalcade of outsiders and freaks.
the exhibition encompasses her entire career from the 1940s, when she was a fashion stylist and assistant to her husband allen arbus, through her apprenticeship with berenice abbott, and lisette model, the latter having a pivotal role in arbuses development, through the period of her major work, in the 1960s and 1970s, when she acheived fame and notoriety, in no small part due to the offices of john szarkowski, photography curator at moma.
those who applaud arbus’s photography speak of the purity of her work, and her unflinching gaze, even of her compassion. compassion was the last thing which the critic and theorist susan sontag could see, whose essay on arbus became the lynchpin for her famous collection “on photography”. for sontag, arbus was a predator. her subjects were appropriated for consumption, snatched out of their social and lived reality, rendered mute. their photographs a reduced and inept similitude of surfaces.
many of these images have become so familiar that they have long since lost much of their discomfiting shock. with the smorgasbord of internet porn and reality tv titillation available at a click, it might be hard to see how devastating this was in its appearance during the 1960s and ‘70s. yet these images, in the quiet surroundings of the v&a galleries still invoke an uncomfortable feeling of complicity in an act of trespass or violation.
more disturbing than any other section is the collection taken, not long before her death by sleeping pills and razor blade: the ‘untitled’ series. they consist, for the most part, of people with varying degrees of mental and physical disabilities, inhabitants of state mental institutions. perhaps society’s ultimate outsiders. photographed in halloween masks, and fancy dress, in grotesque carnival parody of ‘our’ normality, they raise what seems an insurmountable conundrum about the ethics of the gaze. it is difficult to study these images for long. these more than any others bring to mind susan sontag’s aphorism; “the camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own”
© ken edwards 2005
diane arbus revelations:
major retrospective of the legendary new york photographer at the v&a
until 15 january 2006