arbus at the v&a

com­mis­sioned by, and orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in blue­print mag­a­zine

diane arbus: pregnant self-portrait
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.
borgesper­haps 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.
pro-war protestor 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


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