Saturday 28 December 2019

Photographing Freaks: Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus (1923-1971) was a US-American photographer known for capturing "the grand mélange of humanity" (via), for photographing "people on the fringes of society" (via). Since she became famous, her gaze has been celebrated and criticised: sideshow performers, nudists, dwarfs, transgender sex workers were the subjects she felt drawn to.

"But Arbus’s images in “Untitled” are, at first glance, unsettling. Why did she choose to train her lens repeatedly on people who were so vulnerable? There’s baggage to the work, knowing that she often proclaimed her love for photographing “freaks”—a caustic word to use today, though Arbus seemed to do so with affection. Critic Susan Sontag famously railed against Arbus’s practice in her 1977 collection of essays, On Photography, saying her work was “based on distance, on privilege, on a feeling that what the viewer is asked to look at is really other.”
“Othering” is a term we are especially cautious about today. Arbus did come from privilege—she was the middle child in a well-to-do Manhattan family that earned its wealth from her grandfather’s luxury department store. “One of the things I felt I suffered from as a kid was I never felt adversity,” Arbus herself once said. She sought out people with unusual stories, and titled them as such: Mexican Dwarf in his Hotel Room, N.Y.C 1970, and A Jewish Giant at Home with his Parents, in the Bronx, N.Y., 1970. Even in her portraits of people who were not marginalized, such as her widely known picture of twin girls, Identical twins, Roselle, N.J. (1966), she emphasized their strangeness. (...)
It wasn’t until a 2003 retrospective of Arbus’s work that many of her images, letters, and journal entries were made public. They clarified that she was empathetic, not voyeuristic, a word that continues to trail her legacy. (...)
Though there is always a power hierarchy between photographer and subject—a photographer is seeking honesty and vulnerability when the camera is raised—there is a difference between a photographer who takes the shot and leaves, and one who stays. Arbus was one to stay, giving her time and respect, and building a rapport with the people she photographed. She met Eddie Carmel, the Jewish giant, a decade before she snapped the now-famous image of him and his parents; she was invited to celebrate the birthday of a prostitute whom she photographed in bed, in front of a cake. And, late in her life, she returned to the residences of “Untitled” again and again, taking portraits that suggested friendship and closeness between her and her subjects."
Jacqui Palumbo

- - - - - - -
photograph by Diane Arbus via