Diane Arbus

© The Estate of Diane Arbus Courtesy of Masters of Photography

© The Estate of Diane Arbus
Courtesy of Masters of Photography

© The Estate of Diane Arbus Courtesy of Masters of Photography

© The Estate of Diane Arbus
Courtesy of Masters of Photography

In Elisabeth Sussman’s introductory essay on Lisette Model for Phaidon 55 p12 she quotes Model’s influence of Jiddu Krishnamuti’s doctrine of living in the moment: ‘I am a passionate lover of the snapshot, because of all photographic images it comes closest to truth …… the snapshooter(‘s) pictures have an apparent disorder and imperfection, which is exactly their appeal and their style. The picture isn’t straight. It isn’t done well. It isn’t composed. It isn’t thought out. And out of this imbalance, out of this not knowing, and out of this real innocence towards the medium, comes an enormous vitality and expression of life.’ Sussman goes on to say that ‘Arbus and Model enjoyed the same critical relationship as she (Model) has shared with Schoenberg, in which teaching is understood in its broadest terms – as education in the philosophy of art and life’.

This notion of capturing the unplanned, unscheduled, unstructured and unmeant moments, underpins a great deal of Arbus’ photographs and perhaps came, at least in part from Model’s teachning.

I was intrigued listening to Arbus’ words, where she explained how she never felt threatened by whatever was in the frame when she looked into the ground glass viewfinder, and it struck me that this statement revealed a lot about her approach to photography, the difference between her and Model and, possibly, how she managed to capture those moments that she became synonymous with.

Diane Arbus never looked her subjects in the eye, nor did her subjects look her in the eye when the photograph was taken. Arbus was looking down, at the subject, through the prism of the viewfinder – decoupling the photographer from the subject, transfiguring the subject across the glass the wrong way round. This notion of separateness perhaps explains how she felt that she ‘looked for moments that were ‘in between’, that were ‘not what was meant to be shown’, between the posed and the un-posed. It could have been a trait of the technique that Arbus deliberately accentuated, like Parr, who claims that he holds the shutter release until a moment too long, thus revealing a question in the sitter. Again though Parr uses a camera that points the photographers face at the subject, a waist level finder introduces a dynamic whereby the photographer’s eye isn’t connected to the subject’s face. There is an inevitable unease or friction or some such emotional dislocation between the sitter and photographer when the photographer doesn’t ‘look’ at the subject. Most of Arbus’ subjects are Joe public, not professional models, these subjects aren’t used to be photographed in any case, they have been asked, cajoled, pleaded with perhaps to be included in her work be they freaks, children or plain ordinary folk sun bathing nude in a naturist park.

The course asks the question whether we agree with David Oppenheimer’s question is his very thin, essay of the life of Arbus: “Arbus, perhaps more than any photographer before and after, forces us to question the morality of photography. What is it that we’re doing when we take a picture, and what gives us the right?” The course notes go on to ask: “Do you (the student) agree with this statement? What is it about Arbus’ work that ‘forces us to question the morality of photography?’.

The answer to the first question is no-one gives us the right to take pictures, and I’m assuming that the pictures related to the question are those of ‘other’ people, and in Arbus’ case, those of ‘Freaks’. But then no one has said you can’t take pictures, especially in public places. This question is of course loaded with new politics post 9/11, but if that particular issue is set aside then, well it is still a difficult question due to paedophilia issues, but if that issue is also set aside…. The morality  question is probably targeted at producing images, such as Arbus was famous for, where the subject[s] are not at their best, those ‘in between’ moments where the subject is either relaxing, or changing face or about to, where the inference coming from the photograph is one that the subject would not recognize or certainly didn’t mean. Or those photographs where Arbus has captured ‘freaks’, people with a physical difference to the norm’ of society. Those people who were born with their trauma, the sort of trauma that most people simply dread – facial disfigurements, dwarfism, giantism. Arbus said she adored these freaks, they were aristocrats. These freaks that set Arbus apart, were only a part of her output, her morality in providing these people and others presence in the frame wasn’t, in my opinion, questionable, what is perhaps questionable is Oppenheimers thin essay, where that notion of her morality is questioned, much like the oft used phrase ‘when did you stop beating your wife?’, but not addressed. I can neither agree nor disagree with Oppenheimer’s question; what I can say is that Arbus’ work demystifies and represents people, all people, freaks included, in moments of time so small as to not be representative and that we must decide whether they are is the question that is lacking in moral substance. Stieglitzs’ ultimately failed and flawed attempt to capture a portrait of Georgia O’Keefe, with hundreds of studies would perhaps be a better subject to ask that question of, having at least the benefit of volume and the passage of time. And to that body of work, where both artist and sitter were complicit in the process, the answer would only perhaps be, maybe. Arbus wasn’t morally suspect I think, listening to her words I feel that her subjects were aware that Arbus was providing oxygen to their declarations of life. I was recently talking to a lady who, whilst younger than me, felt that her age had made her invisible; Arbus countered this process, though fixed in time. People, especially people who have had traumas, feel invisible, or at least marginalised, and Arbus provided them a way to inject a life into their lives. Provided them with a frame that allowed acclimatisation of their presence into society. For all those other subjects, the appearance of being a snapshot was almost certainly a technical device designed to provide her subjects an unlooked for opportunity to portray a part of themselves that either they didn’t expect to show or didn’t even know was there. Self relevance perhaps?


6 thoughts on “Diane Arbus

  1. It is interesting that Arbus always worked with her subjects permission. She often went back to photograph the same subjects again and many became her friends. She did seek out people on the margins of society it is true. And her portraits were not flattering. She used to talk about the idea of revealing the gap between intention and effect – the way people try to present themselves in one way but appear to others in a different way.

    I have often wondered if the the questioning of the morality of her photographs arises from the guilt of those raising the questions. Guilt about the discomfort they feel when faced with the ‘freaks’ in Arbus’s photographs. It has been suggested that Sontag wrote so much about Arbus because she was both fascinated by and repulsed by her work.

    I have also wondered if most of Arbus’s work was really self portraiture. Perhaps she felt herself an outcast from society. She was certainly troubled.

    • Sontag raises the question, in the mid to late ’70’s it has to be said, of the legitimate use of these subjects, when the natural place for these subjects that Arbus sought out where hidden away in asylums, freak-shows and ‘specialist clubs’. That these subjects are now either fully assimilated into the community or at least not considered ‘freaks’ could be said to be justification of Arbus’ pioneering work, though I don’t think Arbus felt she was pioneering anything and I think she may have been assuaging her guilt for being middle class Jewish, locked into the centre of American main stream, when her subjects weren’t in the playing field let alone the game.
      Sontag did appear to be troubled by the way Arbus confronted her subjects, as you say, gain approval from them; so maybe it was Sontag’s issue – being gay herself when the pink liberation movement was still fighting for recognition in an illiberal world that existed outside the small confines Sontag lived in.
      It has been said many times that all photography is self-portraiture and in that sense I agree think you are of course correct, but with Arbus I think she wanted to express more of her inner problems with an American society that was, and indeed still is, deeply divided, often extremely intolerant and unforgiving and her subjects were exemplars of that division, that intolerance. What we might ask is who or what would be her subjects today?

      • Interesting thought about the changing perceptions of what might or might not be acceptable subject matter and how such perceptions do change over time. Agree with you that Arbus was not a campaigner. A while ago I read the book based on her diaries ‘A Chronology’. I don’t recall getting a clear understanding of why she chose to photograph ‘freaks’ from this, only that she was fascinated by them. It was clear from the book that she had great empathy with her subjects…but maybe she was conning them.

        I am not sure anyone will really know what her motivation truly was. There’s no shortage of people expressing opinions about her work so she certainly made her mark. Maybe this is going to be her legacy. Jeff Rosenheim, the Metropolitan’s associate curator of photography, is quoted as saying that he believes that Arbus’ pictures remain provocative because they raise disturbing questions about the relationship between photographer, subject and audience. I think he’s got something with this notion.

      • I’m assuming you’ve seen the masters of photography videos on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wKXwCctBLQU ? there are four that lead on from one another. Her daughter Doon has an interesting insight, and then it is Arbus’ own words that are spoken.
        I think you are right about Rosenheim’s theory, it chimes with most things I’ve read about her. Thanks for that.

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