I am no anthropologist. In fact, I am very little of anything. I read that some Native American cultures my have been wary of having their photographs taken. Maybe it was an episode of The High Chaparral where a tribesman became furious that a photographer was stealing his soul, and the ranchers all laughed. Whether apocryphal or not, I think those factual or fictional Native Americans were on to something.
While the rest of the Australian Cox tour cabal were off at wine tasting, I snuck away from the Shiraz to go and see a Diane Arbus exhibition at the National Gallery.
It was a beautiful morning to walk along the lake towards walls of naturists, drag acts in curlers and strange-eyed nationalist zealots of the sixties. I was surprised by a jogging pram pusher bidding me “good morning”, soon followed by a jolly cyclist also greeting me. I seldom say hello to strangers when I walk. I used to, but urban paranoia seems to make people greet such bonhomie with suspicion. Canberra rules are different.
A gull lay dead by the pavement. Later, I saw a lone wing on the verge. The happy greetings, then the dead birds…was I in an outtake opening credit sequence for David Lynch?
Last time I visited the National Gallery I was underwhelmed. I enjoyed the brutalist interior, but wasn’t excited by much of the art. This visit was very different.
I started with the Diane Arbus exhibition. I was made aware of her work by John Waters, who enthused about her photo of a rictus grinned boy gripping a toy grenade on a long gone Channel 4 documentary.
This print was in the exhibition, as was her photograph of very large, heavily decorated Christmas tree in a lounge. Whenever I see this, I think of that moment in Female Trouble where Dawn Davenport’s mother is pinned down under a similar pine tree when Dawn has a pink fit over her parent’s failure to but her Cha Cha heels.
I think I like Arbus’s photographs because the frequent heavy lacquer of her subjects seems to be an obviously brittle shell attempting to disguise their struggle. Frequently, we presume her subjects are sad, and some maybe strange, too. It is a monochrome bedlam, where we can stare at them without fear of admonishment. Then, we can have a fancy coffee and carrot cake in the plush café.
I had seen most of the photographs before, but had no recall of a couple of them. She took a series of photographs of naturists being natural. Not playing volleyball, just sitting in their front rooms, shoes on, but nothing else, droopy breasted and acorn-cocked.
The picture in this exhibition was of a family of six naturists, the peculiarity being that the mother chose to wear her bra. No other clothes on shot, just the bra.
The two photographs of right wingers of the late sixties display faces and attitudes that could happily stand tall at a Trump rally.
How fair are these photographs? When I saw the monumental touring Arbus exhibition at the V&A, I particularly enjoyed the proof sheets. (you can also find them in this brilliant book). We should believe that she chose the photograph that she felt most honestly displayed the human as they were, but the photographer is also choosing to print the image that she believes represents what she imagines this person is. My favourite proof sheet is of the grenade boy. Most of the photos are giddy, larky and light, but it is the lone rictus grin shot that makes him iconic.
“There is something ironic in the world and it has to do with the fact that what you intend never comes out like you intend it” – Diane Arbus
I think I love her work because so much is about attempting to create the image you want to project, whether it is the young woman walking out of the sea with her curlers on, or the badges of the pro-war demonstrator. With stand up comedy, the comic attempts to control the world for an hour or two, sometimes creating a new one, at other times dissecting the existing one, and they are also trying to project the image of who they are. That is why comedians can be uneasy in normal social gatherings, they no longer hold the gauntlet of control, they are at the mercy of greater uncertainties.
The exhibition included work of photographers who may have influenced Arbus and those she influenced, from Walker Evans and Weegee, to William Eggleston and Lee Friedlander.
The revelation amongst her predecessors was Lisette Model, whose work I was utterly unaware of until now.
I have run out of space to write about all the paintings that caught me on my walk around the concrete, but here is one that intrigued me by George W Lambert.
The latest Book Shambles podcast stars Isy Suttie, previous ones include Geoff Dyer and Sara Pascoe, and this week’s stars Professor Brian Cox. All 26 Book Shambles are HERE
A new horror anthology, Dead Funny Encore, with stories by Alan Moore, Stewart Lee, Alice Lowe, Josie Long and many more is OUT NOW
This is from The Guardian about whether Arbus was a Humanist or a Voyeur:
“Arbus, as the great American critic and curator John Szarkowski recognised when he first showed her work in his New Documents group exhibition at Moma in New York in 1967, was certainly a trailblazer of a new photographic aesthetic, by turns raw and unflinching, disturbing and illuminating. But a humanist? Only if your view of humanity is essentially pessimistic and tinged with neurotic narcissism.
Arbus may have felt an enormous empathy with the people she photographed, but she was not one of them, however much she identified with their outsider status. She had her own troubles, but they were of a different order. The work she left behind remains powerful not just because of its dark formal beauty or its stark vision, but because it asks questions of the viewer about the limits of looking, about the vicariousness and predatory nature of photography, and about our complicity in all of this.
When we look at an Arbus photograph, we cannot help feeling that we are intruders or voyeurs, even though her subjects are tied to a time and place that has all but vanished. A sense of complicity – hers and ours – lies at the very heart of her power. Her images hold us in their sway even when our better instincts tell us to look away. Perhaps her greatest gift is that she understood that conflict instinctively, and did more than anyone to exploit it artistically.”
Personally Arbus’ photographs don’t make me feel like a peeping tom, but they incur in me a sense of dread that lasts for hours, if not days after seeing one of her shows. There is no doubt about her artistic genius and as an art professional I feel a duty to recognize this despite the fact that in my mind I secretly question my own integrity. Do I like Arbus’ photographs – a few. Do I respect her artistic endeavour – yes. I feel there is a connection between the dark irony of her work to the fact that she committed suicide at the age of 48 It’s like the sum total of her images is a road map to her tragic and premature death.
Pingback: In pastels, oil paints and struck marble, I see hope – favourite exhibitions of 2017 | Robinince's Blog