Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus (1923-71) is frequently lambasted for being insensitive and exploitative . Rosenblum talks about her “derisive treatment”, being “ungenerous” and refers to her ‘Mother Holding Her child, N.J (1967) as being one of the “most alienated images of motherhood in the history of visual art.” [1]  Germaine Greer says: “She may have thought she was getting the mask off, but what she was photographing was actually the clumsy ill-drawn mask itself.” [2]

She is accused of ‘enfreakment’ and the contact sheet for the boy with the toy grenade illustrates this well. Several other images from that shoot were much more ordinary but that she chose this one shows much about who she was as an artist.

Of course, in the late 50s post-war America was finding comfort in the ordinary. Arbus – a wealthy, well-educated Jewish woman – brought to the public a shocking underbelly of misfits, those existing in the margins. Not everyone appreciated looking at this world and it was extremely controversial. There are stories of people spitting on the pictures in The New Documents exhibition at MoMA. Magazine editors were not always willing to publish her work and the threatened lawsuit over the Viva shoot is well-documented.

Arbus was fascinated by the gap ‘between intention and effect’ and was always looking for ‘flaws’. In the extreme she was drawn to the blind and mentally incapacitated – people who have little control over the way they are seen. And she deliberately used her awkwardness to pose and engage with her subjects. They are mostly looking at the camera or at Arbus which adds to an unsettling sense of confrontation.

And yet we know she respected them: “Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.” [3] Somehow though Arbus made everyone look abnormal and this created much anger with some ‘victims’ of her lens – Germaine Greer being a prime example.

Doon Arbus says that a major appeal for her mother was that nothing was prohibited or forbidden in photography. With the encouragement of her mentors, she began to “use her fear rather than being frozen by it.” [4]

She acknowledged being two-faced and not serving the best interests of her sitters but she does say that the subject of the picture is always more important than the picture. And we know her subjects were willing to stop and be photographed. They wanted to be acknowledged and why not?

Arbus was clearly wrestling with her own demons and her obsession with capturing and revealing the flaws of others may well have driven her to further distraction. Always in the role of observer and hunter (or self-described ‘collector’) I can imagine she lost a sense of her own identity and place in the world or – perhaps – became too keenly aware of it. She has described work as an appealing distraction from ‘unanswerable’ questions and talks about growing up with a sense of ‘unreality’.

“There were things that no one else would see unless I photographed them.”

I believe this is the responsibility of the artist and she will have felt she had no choice. She also talks about the appeal of “…what you cannot see in a photograph. An actual physical darkness and it’s very thrilling for me to see darkness again.”

Sontag says: “The fact of her suicide seems to guarantee that her work is sincere, not voyeuristic, that it is compassionate, not cold. Her suicide also seems to make the photographs more devastating, as if it proved the photographs to have been dangerous to her.” [5]

And from Geoff Dyer: “It could be argued… that the stark frontality and frankness of her method was less exploitative than the surreptitious strategies pioneered by Strand and Evans.” [6]

Arbus’ work does not make me at all uneasy about the morality of photography. She cast light on people that others may have been afraid to look at and in doing so will have redefined the scope of suitable material for our viewing ‘pleasure’.

I have a vague sense that Arbus was cold and detached towards the famous and the privileged and towards the cultural elite but that she genuinely liked and was enthralled by her ‘freaks’. They only have the silent presence in history that she gave them whereas it is the famous and the privileged who write the narratives we come to believe in.

Either way, we don’t have to like her and we don’t have to like all of her images but they should be viewed. Her subjects are part of humanity, captured by her entirely unique vision: ”It was my teacher, Lisette Model, who finally made it clear to me that the more specific you are, the more general it’ll be.” It is a dirty job but I am glad she was there doing it.

P.S. I must declare an interest of sorts. I am a Raindog (an obsessive Tom Waits fan). Waits has a similar fascination with freaks and a tendency to be able to create monstrosities.

In Terry Gilliam’s words: “This is a man who writes songs for the angels and sings them in the voice of Beelzebub. The Carny, the Sideshow, the circus freak show is a world I’ve always wanted to be in, and that’s exactly where Tom Waits is.”

Waits even mentions Arbus in the context of the image by Anders Petersen used on the Raindogs album cover: “It does kinda have that Diane Arbus feel… it’s a drunk sailor being held by a mad prostitute. She’s cackling and he’s sombre. It did capture my mood for a moment.” [7]

  1. Rosenblum, Naomi (2007) A World History of Photography (4th edition). New York: Abbeville Press (p525)
  2. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2005/oct/08/photography
  3. Masters of Photography documentary 1972: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q_0sQI90kYI
  4. http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/arbus-diane
  5. Sontag, S (1977) On Photography. London: Penguin Books (p39)
  6. Dyer, G (2005) The Ongoing Moment. Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd (p53)
  7. Humphries, P (2009) The Many Lives of Tom Waits. London: Omnibus Press
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