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?