When Diane Arbus’ photographs were first exhibited to the public they were received as shocking and transgressive, but now fifty years later, her stunning photographs are internationally recognized images. The iconic portraits she captured of nudists, transvestites, circus performers, the mentally handicapped, and other outcasts of society are no longer taboo; instead these images represent nostalgia for a particular era coupled with an unconventional lifestyle.
The Martin-Gropius-Bau is now exhibiting a major retrospective of Diane Arbus that consists of over 200 photographs taken in New York between 1956 and 1971. The show includes both well-known and never exhibited works, as well as a final room devoted to documenting the artist’s biography. Although this extensive collection varies substantially in content, nearly all the photographs are black-and-white portraits of eccentric individuals in their natural environments. Arbus spent considerable time with her subjects, immersing herself in their lifestyles by passing hours in mental hospitals, retreating to nudist colonies, and following traveling circuses. Susan Sontag wrote that “the authority of Arbus’ photographs comes from the fact of attention…the photographer has gotten to know them.” Arbus’ sincere attempt to connect with her subjects is explicit, however her intention is disputable. Was she truly committed to understanding the individuals in her photographs or was she anthropologically fascinated by their idiosyncratic life styles?
Curator and critic John Szarkowski argues that Diane Arbus was in fact emotionally invested in her subjects. He states, “Her pictures are concerned with private rather than social realities, with psychological rather than visual.” However the issue of exploitation is an unavoidable concern for portrait and documentary photographers and filmmakers. In a concurrent Berlin photography exhibition at C/O, filmmaker Larry Clark’s disturbing portraits of adolescent boys engaging in drugs, sex and violence drew similar ethical concerns to those elicited by Diane Arbus’ work. Both photographers rely on shocking and unsettling images to agitate the viewer, raising questions about whether the subjects have been exploited for any given photograph.
Diane Arbus, Two ladies at the automat, N.Y.C., 1966 © The Estate of Diane Arbus
Yet unlike Larry Clark’s, many of Diane Arbus’ subjects appear willing to submit themselves to the camera. In Circus Fat Lady with her Dog, Half man/Half woman, and Fire Eater at Carnival, the performers are self aware of their freakish characterizations and embrace it for the camera. The more controversial and complicated photographs are those depicting people unaware of their ugliness, such as the series Untitled that demonstrates mentally challenged patients from various hospitals around New York City. The patients are in a field outside of their natural environment; some have masks covering their faces, some stand still, and some pose like characters in play. Although these images are theatrical, the subjects themselves are not self-consciously performing.
French artist Jérôme Bel’s 2012 piece currently exhibited at dOCUMENTA (13) draws poignant connections to this series. In Bel’s performance Disabled Theater, he invites viewers to watch mentally disabled actors perform on a stage; they introduce themselves, recite self-composed writings and perform choreographed dances. Similar to Diane Arbus, Bel knows his subjects personally and asks them at the end of the performance to describe their experience participating in his piece. With the exception of a couple, all twelve of them say they enjoyed it. In Arbus’ series Untitled, questions about the emotional awareness of the mental patients can never be fully resolved yet the images will always remain captivating.
Diane Arbus, Untitled (6), 1970-71; © The Estate of Diane Arbus
More than shocking, more than disturbing, more than exploitative, Diane Arbus’ photographs are staggering; the images are fundamentally aesthetically pleasing and anthropologically complex. In an era characterized by the Internet and our abilities to access images on demand, society has become numb to the scandalous and shocking. With television shows like Little People, Big World (a show about a dwarf couple), The 700lb Man (a show about an obese man who can’t walk), and Conjoined Twins (a show about Siamese twins who undergo a separation), we celebrate people’s eccentricities but never fully connect with these characters on the screens. As if watching a play, we gawk, intrigued with them purely as spectacles. Diane Arbus’ psychological approach to understanding people was unique and although her provocative photographs are nearly fifty years old, they are still relevant in raising fundamental questions about humanity and ethics that have been lost in time.
(Image on top: Diane Arbus, A young man in curlers at home on West 20th Street, N.Y.C, 1966; © Courtesy of The Estate of Diane Arbus)