Artists Rooms: Diane Arbus
An accusation often levelled at Diane Arbus is that she was an indulged rich girl who voyeuristically exploited the poor, the disabled and the sexually deviant in her work. Certainly the black and white photographs that comprised her ‘contemporary anthropology’, as exhibited in this the first UK exhibition of her images as part of the Artists Rooms series, largely focus on those living at the edge of society. But her portrayals are not ungenerous, as some have complained.
In fact there’s a detached neutrality to her images, and a matter-of-factness to their titles that is at times deliberately provocative, (note the adjectives she uses to describe the mixed race couple in ‘Young man and his pregnant wife in Washington Square Park’) and at times amusing (the deadpan description ‘Retired man and his wife at home in a nudist camp one morning’ provides a humorous counterpoint to the strangeness of the situation).
Intriguingly, the images of ‘freaks’ are the least compelling aspect of this show, partly because of the familiarity of the images themselves, and partly due to the fact that the self-consciously heightened drama of Arbus’ earliest work has been endlessly copied.
So, while the tattooed men, the giants and the female impersonators are of only fleeting interest, the works depicting ‘ordinary’ people, such as the celebrated ‘Two ladies at the automat’ and the ‘King and Queen of a senior citizens dance’, in which Arbus explores her subjects’ identities, the façades they present to the world and the glimpses beneath the surface, resonate in a way that goes beyond simple shock value.
Dean Gallery, Edinburgh, until Sun 13 Jun