Despised at the time and adored ever after, the photography of Diane Arbus provides a captivating insight into the fringes of 20th century American society.
Everyone has their Diane Arbus moment.
Many I suspect find it hard to ever forget her Child with toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. This skinny kid, wearing some kind of lederhosen rig is grimacing at the camera in a rictus of rage. One hand holds the grenade, the other is formed into a claw. He looks like he’s about to explode.
Welcome to Arbus’ world of life on the edge.
There is a back story to this photograph. The seven-year-old kid’s name was Colin Wood. Like Arbus he was a silver spooner, a Park Avenue kid who was living on powdered Junket at the time and liked to bring his toy guns to school. Wood later commented that the artist “saw in me the frustration, the anger at my surroundings”. The larger than life American novelist Norman Mailer said that “giving a camera to Diane was like putting a live grenade into the hands of a child”. Kaboom.
Well, Arbus is back in town in a National Gallery of Australia touring exhibition, which explores of one of America’s most provocative photographers through 36 rare vintage prints captured during the last decade of her life. This exhibition shows Arbus’ work alongside photographs by her artistic predecessors, contemporaries, and heirs to aspects of her world view – including Walker Evans, Lisette Model, Weegee, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Mary Ellen Mark and Katy Grannan.
For its Adelaide season, American Portraits has been augmented by several Arbus photographs uncovered in a private South Australian collection. Public response to Arbus’ work has softened since her work was routinely spat upon in the 1970s. Must have been something she said back then. That normal isn’t normal perhaps.
The ‘wizard of odds’ as she was described, specialised in portraits of all the kinds of folk that polite society doesn’t like to deal with – the misfits, the freaks, the gender benders and the no-hopers.
The confrontational nature of her images didn’t win the hearts and minds of all critics. Susan Sontag, for example, had it that Arbus “shows people who are pathetic, pitiable, as well as repulsive, and does not arouse any compassionate feeling”. Another American critic, Jed Perl, described the artist as “one of those devious bohemians who celebrate other people’s eccentricities and are all the while aggrandizing their own narcissistically pessimistic view of the world”.
Arbus’ choice of and relationship with her subjects was always going to demand a strong critical response. When the artist took her own life aged 47, some saw evidence that her pictures reflected pathology more than art. Under the deconstructive gaze of post-modernist theory, Arbus’ images fell into a zone in which taking photographs of marginalized and disempowered people became problematic, which is art world code for proceed with caution.
What causes us to be drawn to her portraits? Do they speak to the voyeur within? Are we simply suckers for an old freak show? Even the artist had her moments of doubt. “I’m not ghoulish, am I?” she once asked. But the shifting goals of ideological contexts in which art was drawn into the new millennium has seen a fresh conversation emerge in which Arbus’ practice now sits somewhere in narratives associated with self-identity, explorations of ‘otherness’, gender-fluidity and hidden voices.
These photographs were taken almost half-a-century ago in an era when something called ‘street photography’ became the break-out option for a generation of artists, many based in New York. It became so popular, it was said, that with so many photographers stalking the streets of New York it resembled a safari park. Each brought their own sense of destiny to this moment.
Arbus’ teacher, Lisette Model, advised, “Don’t shoot till the subject hits you in the pit of your stomach”. Hot-shot ‘60s photographer William Klein described himself as “a make-believe ethnographer, treating New Yorkers like an explorer would treat Zulus”. Katie Gannon just hung out on Highway 99, like a bear hooking salmon from a fast flowing tide of humanity. Weegee chased ambulances, fire trucks and Black Marias across town looking into terrified or glazed eyeballs, and Walker Evans crouched in the grit of share cropper depression honouring the invisible lives of the poorest of citizens.
Arbus was and remains different. It shows in her aggressive regard for the printing process to emphasise the photographic-ness of her images, as seen in deliberately blurring edges of her images, leaving irregular black borders and admitting blemishes such as dust on the negative.
The art world’s loss of such a fiercely uncompromising artist at a relatively early age was also shared by an often overlooked domain of artist writing. Arbus, through her notebooks and letters, framed and shared extraordinary insights into her creative journey. “I work from awkwardness,” she once wrote. “By that I mean I don’t like to arrange things. If I stand in front of something, instead of arranging (it), I arrange myself.”
This exhibition, with its walls of mostly black and white images, sits at odds with contemporary experience and its constant distractions of digital animation. To view it meaningfully demands the kind of surrender to the everyday that produced this kind of art in the first place. “If you want to look”, as one writer said of Arbus’ subjects, “have the courage to look me in the eye.”
Diane Arbus: American Portraits
Art Gallery of South Australia
Until Monday, October 1
Header image: Diane Arbus, United States of America, 1923 – 1971, Identical twins (detail.), Roselle, N.J., 1966, 1966, gelatin silver photograph; Purchased 1980, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.