Diane Arbus: 38 Years After Suicide, Art Is Made Visible

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When it comes to society's "freaks," where is the line between passionate interest and voyeuristic Schadenfreude?


Diane Arbus is one of the most controversial and iconic photographers of the 20th century, but until now, many of her works have been hidden from view. Two upcoming exhibitions of her photographs in the UK inspired the Telegraph to ask the inevitable question: are her portraits of society's outsiders, the handicapped, and other so-called "freaks" exploitative, or sympathetic?

Arbus rose to fame in the 1950s and 1960s for her photographs of the "freakish side of life." She has been criticized for her chilling images of, as Susan Sontag put it, ''people who are pathetic, pitiable, as well as repulsive.'' Born into a wealthy Jewish family, Arbus (originally Diane Nemerov) was fascinated by the seedier areas of New York. Because of her desire to "go where [she'd] never been," Arbus was often accused of being a voyeur, a rich girl practicing willful escapism, held at a safe distance by her family's money. Sontag criticized Arbus's work as ''based on distance, on privilege, on a feeling that what the viewer is asked to look at is really other."

As Lucy Davies for the Telegraph points out, her photographs do lend themselves easily to this reading, and yet...

At first it seems Sontag might have a point: Arbus's pictures are devoid of empathy and furtively, even uncomfortably absorbing. But this is only half the story. Listen to Arbus herself: "Most people go through life dreading they'll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They've already passed their test in life. They're aristocrats". They have ''a quality of legend'' about them, ''like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle.'' She venerated, even idolised them.

Arbus further bridged the gap between photographer and subject by becoming personally close to her unconventional muses. If Arbus was a voyeur, she was a surprisingly adept and involved one. She was friends with Eddie Carmel, the "Jewish Giant," for ten years before she took a photograph of him. She not only captured these people on film, she also entered their lives and homes - many of her pictures are titled "in her bedroom," or "at home." Arbus believed that she was immortalizing and elevating her subjects, while giving them the personal attention everyone secretly craves.

"If I were just curious" she explained "it would be very hard to say to someone, 'I want to come to your house and have you talk to me and tell me the story of your life'. I mean people are going to say, "You're crazy." Plus they're going to keep mighty guarded. But the camera is a kind of license. A lot of people, they want to be paid that much attention and that's a reasonable kind of attention to be paid".


Diane Arbus: A Flash Of Familiarity [Telegraph]



Apart from the unmistakable talent immediately evident in her photographs ~ the technical expertise, intimacy, compositional beauty ~ I think Arbus' genius for confrontation discomfits a lot of viewers, and rightfully so, but Sontag had it exactly wrong: it's the way in which the images (and the implication of the image-capturer) destabilize concepts of "normalcy" and "freakishness" that unsettles. Arbus was no more responsible for being born into privilege than was Sontag, but she was passionately committed to human engagement despite that her privilege meant she didn't have to; and, moreover, she did so without elitism or overt ego. Reading anything about her inner life and her motivations illuminates the depth of her compassion. The "aristocrats" quote sums it up so beautifully. Airbrushing and other such falsifications are exploitative. Recognizing a marginalized or otherwise ignored person in her or his unadorned humanity is quite the opposite.

My apologies for the essay, but I'm a fan.