Diane Arbus grew up on Central Park West in New York City, poles apart from the world inhabited by the people portrayed in the renowned photographer’s portraits. Her wealthy family ran Russek’s, a high-end department store, on Fifth Avenue, and she lived a largely sheltered life. Photography was her way of escaping the shackles of her privileged and protected upbringing. It gave her the courage, and a licence, to uncover the world beyond.
Diane Arbus: American Portraits, a National Gallery of Australia (NGA) touring exhibition currently showing at Heide Museum of Modern Art in Melbourne, features 36 of the photographer’s works created during the last decade of her career, 1961 to 1971. This collection of photographs was acquired by the NGA in the early 1980s.
Visitors can expect to see the defining works from Arbus’s brief career alongside some rarely seen gems.
Although billed as a solo exhibition, American Portraits also includes work by eight other prominent American post-war photographers: Walker Evans, Weegee, William Klein, Lisette Model, Mary Ellen Mark, Lee Friedlander, William Eggleston and Milton Rogovin. The curatorial reasoning here is to provide some context for Arbus’s place in the history of photography. These other photographers were her influences, peers, and those who came after her in the documentary photography genre. While it is certainly interesting to see Arbus’s work in this continuum, the exhibition title is a bit of a misnomer considering the weight placed on this contextual information within the gallery space.
Arbus’s work has always polarised people. In On Photography, Susan Sontag reduces it down to something that is “based on distance, on privilege, on a feeling that what the viewer is asked to look at is really other”. It’s a popular opinion. There are ultimately two camps when it comes to Diane Arbus: those who agree with Sontag, and those who don’t. The latter think her work is provocative, yes, but also empathetic.
Arbus paid attention to the down-and-out and the disenfranchised. People didn’t like it then, in Arbus’s lifetime, and many still dislike it.
But everybody wants a little bit of attention, and Arbus gave her subjects that. Whatever your opinion on Arbus may be, it is clear that there was a rapport between the photographer and her subjects.
Nevertheless, things start to feel slightly uncomfortable in viewing Arbus’s photographs of the poor, mostly black, families from South Carolina. Old Black Woman with Gnarled Hand, 1968, particularly strikes a nerve. It’s a rarely seen Arbus photograph. In this intimate portrait an old woman is lying in bed with her ‘gnarled hand’ visible in the foreground, and a look of faded anguish on her face. The weight of history – hundreds of years of racial exploitation and slavery – makes viewing this photograph, and imagining the circumstances of it coming into being, an uneasy experience.
Often in Arbus’s work the viewer’s gaze is diminished by the power of the gaze of her subjects. Most of Arbus’s subjects (the Mexican dwarf, the New Jersey twins, the young man in curlers, the child with the toy hand grenade and more) stare you down, demanding your attention. From 1962 onwards, Arbus started using a medium-format camera, and this shift seems to have enabled her to really come into her own and create these arresting images. Perhaps that’s because a medium-format allows you to connect with your subjects more: the photographer’s face isn’t obscured in that decisive moment.
Although Arbus claimed she was technically inferior, her skills as a photographer are two-fold. Firstly, as mentioned above, there was her ability to build a great rapport with her subjects. John Szarkowski, former director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and curator of MoMA’s 1967 New Documents exhibition that featured Arbus’s work, summed it up neatly in a statement to Arthur Lubow, journalist and author of Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer: “People were interested in Diane, just as interested as she was in them”.
And then there was her startling vision and masterful composition: a major reason why her work endures.
In Aperture magazine in 1961 documentary photographer Robert Frank stated, “There is only one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment. This kind of photography is realism. But realism is not enough – there has to be vision, and the two together can make a good photograph.” Arbus’s vision sets her apart. No one else could have taken these photographs or deliver the same impact.