New Diane Arbus exhibition set for Dean Gallery, Edinburgh
As a new exhibition of work by Diane Arbus opens in Edinburgh Neil Cooper looks at the legacy left by the infamous photographer
If Diane Arbus hadn’t slashed her wrists in 1971 aged 48, who knows how her work might have developed. As it is, the New York-based photographer became an underground icon, lionised for her untimely death as much as the warts and all portraits of gender-bending freaks, demented-looking infants and googly-eyed models that gave a close-up of America’s less airbrushed underbelly. It is the latter that matters in the latest instalment of the UK-wide Artists Rooms initiative, as it brings together 70 black and white images, including some rare portfolios and a candid self-portrait dating from 1945, when Arbus was pregnant with her first child.
‘Arbus’s work occupies a very particular position,’ explains curator Phil Long. “It can be seen as documentary, in that it represents people, but it’s done with a very particular eye. The sort of people Arbus photographed weren’t the usual subjects for a photographer, which makes them all the more remarkable. Looking at her photographs now, one thinks of a particular time in terms of the sorts of people she photographed: transvestites, dwarves, people with special needs. She seemed to identify with people in a vulnerable state.’
Contextually, much of Arbus’ work was seen as the visually subjective equivalent of the New Journalism spearheaded by Tom Wolfe, existing in a limbo-land somewhere between Warhol’s Factory and the nascent CBGBs downtown scene that provided homes for oddballs and kooks who liked to walk on the wild side. Warhol superstar Viva posed for a magazine spread for the former fashion photographer, while Patti Smith’s 2005 poetry collection, Auguries of Innocence, featured ‘She Lay in a Stream Dreaming of August Sanders’, about Arbus.
But Arbus hasn’t escaped criticism. Germaine Greer, photographed by Arbus in 1971, suggested that her portrait was an ‘undeniably bad picture’, while Viva, whose whacked-out appearance in Arbus’s pictures lost her a magazine contract, wrote an unflattering (and not very good) poem, commenting, ‘Everyone will hate me for it. Because Diane’s been sainted.’ Literary bull Norman Mailer, a writer hardly known for his sensitivity, suggested that ‘Giving a camera to Diane Airbus is like putting a live grenade in the hands of a child.’
While Mailer was almost certainly referencing Arbus’s ‘Child With Toy hand Grenade in Central Park’, much nearer the knuckle was Susan Sontag, who herself had been captured with her son by Arbus in 1965. In a 1973 essay, Sontag saw Arbus as a privileged nihilist voyeur from the Upper West Side preying on those not able to defend themselves. Long, for one, begs to differ, pointing to a series of untitled shots of people with learning difficulties to support him.
‘If you think of how those elements of society were perceived in the 1960s, that makes the pictures all the more remarkable. Instead of being pictured as overly vulnerable or disenfranchised, they’re seen to be relaxed, comfortable, and enjoying posing for the camera.’
Of her broader canon, Arbus put it more simply: ‘There’s a quality of legend about freaks,’ she said. ‘Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. 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.’
Diane Arbus, Dean Gallery, Edinburgh, Sat 13 Mar–Sun 13 Jun.