Archive for September, 2011

Chantal Akerman – La Captive

Monday, September 12th, 2011

The fifth volume of Marcel Proust’s legendary novel REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST is the source for veteran French feminist filmmaker Chantal Akerman’s remarkable film LA CAPTIVE. Following a theme common in her past films–the impossibility of true knowledge of the other, Akerman crafts a severe and stilted chamber drama out of Proust’s evocative and poetic text. Simon (Stansilas Merhar) is a wealthy and sensitive French man living in a posh, if cloistered, life in Paris. Ariane (Sylvie Testud) is Simon’s lover and constant companion, as well as the subject of his irritated obsessions. Not satisfied with merely loving Ariane, Simon aches to have absolute knowledge of her– her past, her present, her thoughts, and her deeds. When having her accompanied at every moment does not satisfy him, Simon begins to follow her everywhere she goes, questioning acquaintances, and constructing elaborate fictions around her every action. Suspecting her of a secret life filled with love for other women and a true happiness to which he is not privileged, Simon attempts to penetrate Ariane’s aloof and opaque façade, only to bring their impossible love to a breaking point. Akerman’s tight and constrained style, assisted by stylized acting, creates a complex and compelling portrait of the tragedy inherent in love.

Lee Ufan – On Reflection

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

From Frieze Magazine | Archive | On Reflection.

On Reflection



After the opening last year of the Lee Ufan Museum – a collaboration with the architect Tadao Ando on Naoshima Island, Japan – and ahead of his largest retrospective to date, at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Lee Ufan talks to Melissa Chiu about his five decades as an artist, writer and philosopher


Lee Ufan, 2010

Since the late 1960s, Korean-born artist Lee Ufan – who lives and works in Paris, France, and Kamakura, Japan – has been an influential painter, sculptor, writer, art critic, teacher and philosopher. He was a key figure in the Mono-ha movement (from the two Japanese words mono, meaning thing, and ha, school) in the late 1960s and early ’70s in Japan, where he moved in 1956. Originating from Mono-ha’s interest in highlighting the relationships between artistic elements and the spaces around them, Ufan’s sculptures are created from simple juxtapositions of natural and industrial materials, while his paintings and watercolours involve quiet confrontations between pigment and surface. Parallel to his sustained artistic process, he has continued to write critical essays and short texts about subjects ranging from philosophy and art to cooking, flower arranging and poetry. Before the opening of his first US retrospective, at the Guggenheim Museum in New York this summer, art historian Melissa Chiu spoke to Lee Ufan about his life and work.

Melissa Chiu You’ve been a seminal figure for international art, particularly the development of Modernism in East Asia. Although you were born in Korea and lived there until you were 20, your work as an artist and critic is perhaps better known in Japan, largely because of the role you played with the Mono-ha movement of the late 1960s and ’70s. What do you think led to the development of Mono-ha in Japan?
Lee Ufan (via translator Sumiko Takeda) The Mono-ha movement began around 1967 and lasted until about ’74. At the time, there were major social changes occurring in the US – the hippie movement, for example – as well as Earthworks and Minimalism in art. In Italy there was Arte Povera and in the UK, Anti-Form. Modernism was being criticized and new values were being explored. In France there was the May ’68 revolution, and in Japan the Anpo movement arose as a resistance toward the Japanese-US Security Treaty. The existing structures were being turned upside-down, and this had an impact on literature, art and music. Modernism in these contexts was about expressing what one was about, but the Mono-ha movement was not about identity. It had to do with what to make and what not to make, and the clash of the two. The art work we created was criticized for its lack of skill. We used manufactured materials, such as glass, sheet metal or electricity, combined with natural materials, such as dirt, rocks and water. I use the Japanese word chutohampa to describe it, which means unresolved, incomplete or not polished. So you’re neither here nor there; it’s the meeting of the two – oneself and one’s interaction with these materials, both industrial and natural.

imageRelatum – Discussion, 2003, four iron plates and four stones

MC In an essay you wrote, you described Mono-ha as a movement that ‘disturbed ordinary perceptions and preconceived ideas about what is real or not real’. That brings to my mind an approach towards materials that was probably very new in Japan, and certainly internationally, at that time. Can you talk a little bit more about this approach to materials, which I think is the essence of the Mono-ha movement?
LUF Right before Mono-ha emerged there was a breakdown in the identity of Japanese artists. Rather than using things and space as materials for realizing their ideas, artists tried to bring out the mutual relationships of their materials and the spaces surrounding them. Step-by-step they became more conscious of the media they were using.

MC In accounts of Japanese art, Mono-ha always comes on the heels of the Gutai movement that emerged in the late 1950s, and whose manifesto expressed their interest in the beauty of destruction, ruins or decay. What relationship, if any, did Mono-ha have to Gutai?
LUF There is no direct relationship: Gutai was more orientated toward experimentation, whereas Mono-ha was a protest against Modernism. Gutai gave us the courage to experiment, but within the context of the breakdown of identity, Gutai had nothing to teach.

imageRelatum,1971, canvas and stones, installation view at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum

MC But if Gutai had less to teach, then why do you think – in the West at least – it has received a lot more critical attention than Mono-ha? Does this have something to do with the performative nature of Gutai?
LUF That’s a very good point. There are links between Gutai and Mono-ha when it comes to performance. I don’t mean to deny Gutai’s relevance. It was driven by new ideas, and doing things that were dynamic and attractive. The Gutai group was a community, and they worked with other groups, such as the Zero Group. They were better funded and had the support of influential critics. Mono-ha wasn’t recognized by the critics – our recognition came from Europe. It was not about new ideas; rather, it looked at what to do with this broken identity in Japan in the postwar period. And so Mono-ha began with a very clear concept in that respect. Compared with Gutai, we had far less financing, and there were fewer people involved. It was not a group that would pull its forces together to do something dynamic. It was very different in nature, and that’s reflective of the times. It consisted of individuals who did their own thing, and in fact, if we did get together at all, we had arguments and fights. That’s the way it was.

MC Much of my work as an art historian and curator, especially in the past few years, has been to look at art history with a global emphasis. Mono-ha, like Gutai, was not a movement that existed in a vacuum, but rather one that was linked to other movements across the world. How connected did you feel to other art movements that were going on outside of Japan?
LUF In 1967 or ’68 Japan was not very open. It was a period of economic growth in the country, but there was still poverty, and therefore it was not an information-rich society. It was difficult to get information. Outside of the art world, there was a movement against neo-colonialism. The Anpo movement reacted against American imperialism. Because the information wasn’t so readily available, we often misunderstood what was going on in the rest of the world. It wasn’t until I went to Europe for the first time for the Paris Biennale in 1971 that I was able to get more information and find out about what was going on both in the US and Europe.

MC Your writings have played such an important role, not just within Mono-ha, but also throughout your career. Why did you choose to take on this role of writer and artist, or critic and artist?
LUF When I moved to Japan from Korea, I was a foreigner, an outsider. No critics supported my work. Out of desperation, I wrote about myself. I gave lectures and did whatever was necessary. That’s one reason. The second reason was that I had studied philosophy, so I was theoretical in my thinking, and when I began working with other people with similar thoughts there were no critics to support this larger group, and so I had to explain what it all meant – it really was an act of desperation. Somehow these essays piled up, and resulted in a number of books. Amongst my friends in Mono-ha, there was a need for these texts. I still don’t believe myself to be an art critic, but writing does help me clarify my ideas. There may not be a tight correlation between what I write and my work, but it gives me better context, which I believe makes my art work that much richer.

imageRelatum,1970, stones, cushions and lights, installation view at the Pinar Gallery, Tokyo
MC You’ve lived outside of your home country, Korea, for much of your life, both in Japan and in now in Paris. Can you tell me about your experiences of living abroad?
LUF I ended up in Japan by sheer chance. My uncle was not well, so I went to visit him there and he told me I should stay and study, so I did. But I met with discrimination there. They called me Chosenjin, which is a derogatory term for a Korean. Because I was not Japanese, and because my art and ideas had to do with the breakdown of the status quo, people believed that I was a bad influence on Japanese culture. The Japanese felt that it was not a role for an outsider. I was told that if I fought with critics I would certainly be thrown out, so I had to be careful. When I had the opportunity to be part of the Paris Biennale, I met artists from outside of Japan and realized that I could be more active in Europe, and in fact, I originally gained a following in Germany. I had shows there, and was provided with a place to live, but I never ended up living there because I was considered Oriental, a derogatory word. So again I was criticized, and there I was, alone once more. I have never had any support from a country or a nation. I feel like I’ve had to fight by myself, to this day. But being lonely I think has given me inspiration and courage. I have a lot of friends in these countries now, so it doesn’t seem so important anymore whether I’m ‘Oriental’ or ‘Asian’.

MC You’ve had a long-standing interest in Korean antiquities, and you were generous enough to donate a number of them to the Musée Guimet in Paris. When we spoke a number of years ago, after the exhibition of your donated works, you said that living in Paris helped you understand that it was good for Korean culture artefacts to be displayed outside of the country, so that people could learn more about the history and traditions of Korea.
LUF There are things about Korea that I both love and detest. I grew up in a home that was very traditional. We had a lot of art works and furniture, so I have a certain nostalgia for the things that were around me as I was growing up. At that time, they weren’t recognized as being important as art objects. I began to collect them in the 1960s and ’70s. At the time these things were practically free and readily available. So even with very little money, I was able to collect them. I really wanted this collection to go to a place where many people would see it. The Musée Guimet is an Asian museum, and I thought that was a good place for them. Paradoxically, when I made the donation, the Korean newspapers criticized me because they believed that these items were taken from Korea, where they should belong; they thought I was selling out my country.

MC When I last visited your studio in Kamakura in Japan, about 50 kilometres southwest of Tokyo, I was struck by what a beautiful, serene environment you’ve created there. Can you describe your daily practice?
LUF I only spend three or four months a year in Japan; I spend the remaining time in Europe, and, more recently, in America. I also go to Korea a few times a year. When I return to Japan from these short stays, I want it to be a time for me to sort things out in my mind, to have some quiet time, but that can’t always be. Whether I’m in Paris, Germany or New York, my lifestyle is not so different. I wake up in the morning, I go for a walk, I might get some bread, I check my schedule. I may not make drawings while I’m on the road per se, but I do explore ideas. At home, I try to make art every day. It’s important to keep my hands working so that I can continue to work in an uninterrupted manner; I think psychologically it’s good for me to always take that action toward making work.

imageShadow Room, Lee Ufan Museum in Naoshima, Japan

MC You described some of the complexities of being an Asian artist in Europe. I’m aware that in recent years though, you and your work have been increasingly recognized outside of Asia. I saw your exhibition at the Museé d’art Moderne de Saint-Etienne Métropole in 2005, and it’s now the eve of the opening of your retrospective ‘Marking Infinity’ at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Can you tell us a little bit more of what we might expect at the Guggenheim exhibition? Are there some key themes or issues that you felt very pertinent for audiences here in America to recognize?
LUF I’ve been wandering around Europe for 40 years, and – fortunately or unfortunately, as the situation may be – I’ve never had a retrospective in Japan, though I’ve had opportunities to have gallery shows. This is my biggest retrospective to date. My work has to do with myself, but also with my relationship to the other. It has to do with making, but not making. My work may seem simplistic – there’s a small amount of sculpture, a little bit of painting. Culture should not be about raising the gross national product. I am critical of corporations and the endless types of manufacturing and production that occur, and humans wanting to aggressively realize whatever it is that comes to their minds. It’s okay to lower the GNP and think about nature. If we had done that, perhaps the Fukushima nuclear reactor accident would never have occurred. It’s important to think about holding back and stopping to think, to be quiet, and to think of ourselves as part of the universe. Humans shouldn’t be at the centre of it. And we should be more reflective about who we are and what we do.

MC Do you have a message that you would like to convey to those who may or may not know your work?
LUF I would like people to see in my work a statement about what’s happened with the earthquake, the tsunami and the nuclear reactor. It’s not that I can help in the recovery effort, but I want to say that what occurred in Japan recently should never happen again. My work is simple, but there is energy and power that one feels through my sculpture and paintings, and it’s physicality that I’m dealing with. In this day of computers, it’s about information and the processing of information, but that alone is not enough. People are part of nature, and there are environmental issues we need to consider. I would like Americans and Europeans to set their eyes toward this aspect of physicality. By physicality I don’t mean just the body itself, but with the body and the relationship between the space and air and so forth. In my exhibition, whether you like it or not, one should feel the air and the vibration within. I want there to be a feeling of healing, and I hope that people will receive some hints of that, through seeing my work.
Lee Ufan’s first US retrospective, ‘Marking Infinity’, opens at the Guggenheim Museum in New York on 24 June and runs until 28 September. A solo exhibition of his recent paintings and sculptures is on view at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Salzburg, Austria, until 18 June; his work can also be seen in the exhibition ‘The World Belongs to You’ at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, Italy, until 31 December. A selection of English translations of his writings from 1967 until 2007 are compiled in the book The Art of Encounter, which was published by Lisson Gallery in 2007.

Dr. Melissa Chiu

is Museum Director and Vice President, Global Art Programs at Asia Society in New York, USA. She has organized nearly 30 exhibitions of artists from across Asia; her books include Breakout: Chinese Art Outside China (2007), Chinese Contemporary Art: 7 Things You Should Know (2008), Asian Art Now (Monacelli Press, 2010, co-authored with Benjamin Genocchio) and the anthology Contemporary Art in Asia: A Critical Reader (MIT Press, 2011, co-edited with Benjamin Genocchio).

Cluster & Eno – Anna Pavlova

Friday, September 9th, 2011

PAUL GRAHAM: “Sliding Sight, Setting Suns” (2008)

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

From: PAUL GRAHAM: “Sliding Sight, Setting Suns” (2008).

Excerpt from ‘A Thing There Was That Mattered’, from the book ‘Paul Graham’ published by steidlMACK, 2009

By David Chandler

‘He is not heroic, he is aware that modern life is full of nondescript melancholy, of discomfort, of queer relationships which beget emotions that are half-ludicrous and yet painful and that an inconclusive ending for all these impulses is much more usual than anything extreme.’

Virgina Woolf, on the short stories of Anton Chekhov

I’ve said it before, I do not credit the epiphanic, the seeing through that reveals all, triggered by a mastering of detail…Life’s moments truly come at us heedless, not at the bidding of a gilded fragrance.’

Richard Ford, The Lay of The Land

Paul Graham’s route-less journeys around America that had begun back in the summer of 2004, went on during 2005 and for most of 2006. He continued driving, to and from places, visiting and not visiting; the locations, towns and cities becoming less and less relevant and more and more representative. He would drive, and stop, and walk, sometimes for a few minutes, at other times for hours, maintaining an unstructured and intuitive itinerary, and photographing all the while, keeping restraint in mind, never dwelling too long on any one subject or being drawn too far beyond that initial point of fascination.

It is from these underlying principles that A Shimmer of Possibility emerged in 2007, its monumental 12-volumes spanning the nation with single or interlocking narratives of life as it passes by or as it is happened upon by Graham and his camera. The volumes range between relatively extended passages of more than twenty photographs over sixty pages, to a book that cradles just one picture, a story with no beginning and no end.

We might take his four hour drifting walk along Everett Avenue in the Chelsea district of Boston on 26th August 2006, near the end of his work on Shimmer, as in some ways representative of Graham’s evolved approach. Over seventeen photographs his attention is taken here and there, his eye is flitting around, alighting on something: a hesitation, a picture, and then moving on. People cross the street, they get into their cars; the American flag hangs in the background; a street corner outside the Chelsea Trial Court coheres momentarily as a tableau, a brief mirage of American photography’s past; signs declare Checks Cashed, Dunkin Donuts, 7 Eleven, the Elegance Salon. Graham takes a few steps to follow a young mother carrying a child back to her car: two pictures and then across the street to notice… well, not very much, a non-descript slice of time, an unanswered question. Then in the Boston book, in large pictures at each end of this sequence a butterfly floats up in solid blue space, as if to speak of the lightness of everything, this ephemeral watching, and perhaps also to let us know there is a season behind it all, that despite the strange docile weight of everything on the ground, Spring is in the air.

Graham has said that A Shimmer of Possibility was in part inspired by Chekhov’s short stories, which achieve the greatest atmosphere from ordinary situations, the most vivid sense of time, place and character, with the most minimal of means, and with plain words beautifully arranged often in long lilting sentences. Whilst too literal a comparison would be unhelpful, Graham’s photographic sequences do have a Chekhovian pace and phrasing, one that makes effective use of the pause – in Graham’s case blank pages between images – and that strikes a balance between formlessness and structure. In the Shimmer books, formless photographs, or perhaps more accurately photographs where form is incidental, are variously sized and irregularly placed on the page but in carefully planned succession. The sudden shifts of subject and viewpoint and the use of repetition deliberately dislodge the narrative flow but also allow us to share in Graham’s watchful fascination. Virginia Woolf, in her essay ‘Tchehov’s Questions’, noted something similar in Chekhov’s ‘choice of incidents and endings’ that unsettle the reader, giving the impression ‘that the ground upon which we expected to make safe landing has been twitched from under us.’ But somehow, she argued, things imperceptibly ‘arrange themselves, and we come to feel that the horizon is much wider from this point of view; we have gained an astonishing sense of freedom.’

In much of this freedom, this opening out of photographic seeing, however, the forlorn presences of American Night reappear, the poor and the destitute who inhabit the streets that Graham came to walk along almost everywhere he went. Now, as the significance and importance of the single image falls away into what has been referred to as a ‘filmic haiku’, the desperate circumstances of these people is elaborated and reinforced as Graham unravels the visual threads of his various encounters. Typically in Washington an African American woman with dyed red hair sits eating a take-away on the street. The first picture, a profile portrait, registers discomfort, both hers and now ours as onlookers. Graham then notes the meal on her knees in its polystyrene tray, hands cupped around it; then a similar picture, though larger, and shifted very slightly to the left. Two photographs of discarded bones and a soda can follow, thrown randomly onto the sidewalk and similarly framed by the camera but in shifting focus, and then Graham moves back, to the woman smoking after the meal, her fingers, the cigarette, her inhaling cheeks, crystal clear to us as we look over her shoulder. Throughout this Shimmer volume, interlacing pictures from Washington and South Broad, New Orleans (2004-06), Graham leads us through these dispiriting details, in which a melancholy languor persists, rising in three pictures into an extraordinary louring sunset and then down onto a New Orleans sidewalk again where some fluorescent red glace cherries seem to be melting away in the sun. Graham’s intention here is ambivalent. So much of what we see seems to suggest critical social observation, but then the atmosphere lifts for a moment and Graham diverts the attention away on a tangent as things occur and are seen. Nothing seems resolved, no particular side is taken, everything is inconclusive but there are constantly questions. Again Graham’s photographic attention here seems rooted in something Katherine Mansfield said about Chekhov: ‘What the writer does is not so much solve the question but…put the question. There must be the question put. That seems to me a very nice dividing line between the true and false writer.’

Louisiana (Camarro), 2005

In American Night we might say that those questions were more emphatically put, and that the structures of the work prompted resolution. Here, amid the irregular cadences of Shimmer, ideas are framed with pellucidity and lightness; photographs are the conscious form that ideas then permeate. John Szarkowski was fond of quoting a conversation between Ducasse and Mallarme, where Ducasse says to his old friend: ‘You know I’ve got a lot of good ideas for poems, but the poems are never very good.’ To which Mallarme says: ‘Of course, you don’t make poems out of ideas, you make poems out of words.’ In thinking of this we might look at Graham’s photograph from a liquor store in Washington, that shows worn shelves of bottles, mostly spirits, aligned in a slight diagonal across the picture, but which, with blurred objects breaking the frame and the foreground, is not conventionally ‘well composed’: again a casual thought quickly noted. The photograph is packed with information about what liquor is on offer and what it might cost. We learn, for example, that a bottle of Captain Morgan Spiced Rum is $3.99, or that you can buy a similar sized bottle of 100 Pipers Scotch Whiskey for $4.99. Set within pictures of those depressed and torpid streets, the sense here, of course, is of cheap liquor as a kind of last gasp remedial help, the store might just as well function as a chemist amid all this social fracturing. And yet there is something less accountably compelling about this image, given some emphasis in its Shimmer volume. When Walker Evans took pictures of grocer’s stores in the 1930s it was not just the visible index of goods and the delineating of a local culture from that which held his attention, but the formal arrangements therein, the sculptural form and collaged signage holding such a wealth of accumulated detail that he knew would accord so well with the facility of the camera to describe and to preserve it. In Graham’s photograph there is an echoing of Evans, indeed the ‘vintage’ character and labelling of the bottles gives the whole image a scent of the past. The fascination here for the photographer, though caught up in the general conditions outside on the street, is equally in information so compacted and richly coloured, the textures of a threadbare reality appearing so momentarily concise and tangible.

Again in American Night, Graham was at pains to expose the flip side of this reality in a form of visual collision, murky fragility against too perfect clarity. In a shimmer of possibility those collisions, while still there to be negotiated, are less forcefully directed. When some semblance of that suburban idyll appears again, for example, as it does in Graham’s tree-green volume of photographs from New England taken in 2006, the tone is more ambiguous. The atmosphere in the wooded streets and in the grounds of substantial residencies is exactly balanced on that line between cloying sweetness and something more sturdy and genuinely beautiful that Richard Ford used to set the scene of his novel Independence Day: ‘In Haddam, summer floats over tree-softened streets like a sweet lotion balm from a careless, languorous god, and the world falls in tune with its own mysterious anthems.’ Again it is a spotless world but now lurking here are also notes of doubt and uncertainty. As Graham walks and seems to set his camera adrift in that balm of light and air, he meets an elderly woman retrieving her post. Three photographs ensue: a full figure, a close-up portrait – the woman, eyes closed, with a vaguely haughty expression – and then Graham’s camera angles down to her feet, in old pink slippers against the grey concrete drive. The photographs undermine the woman’s place, her real-estate security, and we are left more with the sense of her vulnerability and the shared indistinctness of ageing. Now the impenetrable time-locked poise of these New England houses and lawns has become invested with fragility, and as Graham moves on another question hovers in front of the lens.

As Lawrence Weschler once wrote on Robert Irwin: ‘Seeing is forgetting the name of the things one sees.’ For Graham a shimmer of possibility embodied this kind of forgetting, but it is also a remembering, a rediscovery of and a reattachment to photography’s essential mechanism, and a letting go of the desire to mould that to an inordinate artistic will. As a form of new maturity in his work Shimmer allows the world to cohere and fade in all its diversity, it does not shy away from the hard and harsh words, the inconsolable moods that it may never brighten, but neither does it self-consciously avoid what is plainly inspirational, both within and beyond human scale. The matter-of-factness of Graham’s democratic, inclusive seeing simultaneously reactivates and expands the tired, over-used formulas of the photographic language, introducing a new syntax and disarming the cliché with bare economy and unflinching emphasis.

‘He sinks shots one-handed, two-handed, underhanded, flat-footed, and out of the pivot, jump and set. Flat and soft the ball lifts. That his touch still lives in his hands elates him. He feels liberated from long gloom.’

John Updike, Rabbit, Run

Sometime during the Autumn of 2005 Graham found himself wandering in the suburbs of a town in East Texas. The streets were like those you might find anywhere in America, modest clap-board housing, simple back lots, a few cars; a poor district but not constrained by space, with lawns and trees and its own sense of order lightly applied. It had been a fine day, but the sky was now growing pale and translucent with the fading light. Stopping to look between the houses, across some unkempt grass and through the almost bare trees, Graham photographs the setting sun, a disc of white light rapidly drawing heat from the last of the day as it hides itself beyond the horizon. The trees blacken into silhouettes, laying a filigree pattern over the grey blue sky and its glowing ember hearth in the distance. The scene is deserted, a quiet evening, there are no lights on anywhere and nobody seems to be about. It is this darkening stillness that registers in the photograph we see reproduced in a shimmer of possibility. The image is printed large on the page, about 15 x 12”, but peering into it is hard on the eye. Then turning the page a very similar picture appears, taken from a few steps back, though now printed smaller, producing a frame on frame, a doubling as if for emphasis, but also it is a form of checking, as if something may have been missed, the image as a kind of premonition.

New Orleans (Woman Eating), 2004
American Night #41, 2002

What Graham at first didn’t see and what can easily be overlooked in his photographs, even turning back to the larger picture, is that some way across the grass below the sinking sun are two figures in white tee-shirts appearing either side of a basketball stand. Once he notices this Graham goes to investigate, following this human connection into the next street. And in his subsequent picture we find him looking at two teenagers, brother and sister, shooting hoops on a broad road in the shading of twilight. Graham has already been seen and they know he has begun to photograph them, but they carry on playing regardless. He moves closer, watching and photographing their leaps and turns, the boy jumping and touching the hoop. It’s an athletic display but not a performance, and not dramatized by the camera; this is something fleeting, it happens and Graham responds. Then he stands alongside the girl, the younger one, and photographs her as she prepares a set. She makes the shot, arms raised, feet planted, perfectly balanced. And then in the next picture we see her, ball gone, watching, peering herself in that murky light, the success or failure of her shot is unknown and unseen to us, and maybe that is the perfect point to leave her.

‘They went on living. They would grow old. A thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter. This he had preserved…’
Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway

A few minutes has passed and Graham has made five pictures. The results are a pleasure to see, as this scene evidently was for the photographer, a slice of life that materializes and then subsides, and we go on. But the thought of that energy, the joy of that movement lingers like the sunset itself.

Then in the same book, after another blank page pause, Graham relocates us to North Dakota. It is twilight again and we are looking at a gas station, free standing in the open landscape, reflecting the late sun, an orange and red canopy on six tall narrow pillars, a kind of magical stage set complete with its own grid of spotlights. Graham stands back to take in the scene, to isolate and bear witness to the gas station as a vision and to underscore its status as an icon of the American landscape, the familiar trope of artists from Hopper to Ed Ruscha, and a something of a photographers’ totem, from Walker Evans onwards. Through several hours and seven pictures Graham watches as this theatre of nowhere plays out in the setting sun. His main subjects are still and in turn his thoughts and photographs are less incidental, more measured and reflective, as if tracing over the contours of a familiar map but one that he has rediscovered in a dream. Cars pull in and leave, a gleaming red and white pick-up parks and Graham takes an admiring portrait, and then he sees another, they appear like the figments of the road, of a particular kind of American mobility that trails across the continent and back in time.

In the last two photographs the sky’s hues deepen; the dying sun gives a last magenta glow to the thinning clouds, and the gas station, deserted now, takes on a painterly softness and an air of mystery in the night. Then for the final image, Graham tilts the camera upward to catch the risen moon, half shadowed by the earth but with its own landscape faintly seen in the expanding atmospheric space. It is a significant connection and another minor crescendo, one of the many in A Shimmer of Possibility; recalling that same sense of affirmation that elevated Graham’s first pictures of the man mowing in Pittsburgh, that same sense of wonder and transcendence. In the linking of these pictures with those of the young basketball players, Graham makes more of their vigour, building a kind of poetic energy that is understated yet finally unrestrained. At the end of his short story The Student, in a paragraph that is also one long winding walk of a sentence, Chekhov similarly raises his hands in unapologetic celebration:

‘And when he was crossing the river on the ferry, and then when he was walking up the hill, looking down at his own village and across to the west, where the cold crimson sunset was glowing in a narrow band, he realised that truth and beauty, which had guided human life in that garden and at the high priest’s, had continued to do so without a break until the present day, and had clearly always constituted the most important elements in human life, and on earth in general; and a feeling of youth, health, and strength – he was only twenty two years old – and an inexpressibly sweet expectation of happiness, of unfathomable, mysterious happiness, gradually overcame him, and life seemed entrancing and miraculous to him, and full of sublime meaning.’
Anton Chekov, The Student

Paul Graham.
Photographs by Paul Graham. Essays by David Chandler, Michael Almereyda, Russell Ferguson.
SteidlMACK, 2009. 384 pp., 250 color illustrations, 9¼x11¼”.

BOOKS: Paul Graham

* Paul Graham (2009)
* A Shimmer of Possibility (2009)
* American Night (2003)
* End of an Age (1999)
* Empty Heaven: Photographs from Japan 1989-1995 (1995)
* A1: The Great North Road (1983)

Around the WEB: Paul Graham

* Paul Graham Archive
* Wikipedia: Paul Graham
* MOMA: Shimmer of Possibility
* Steidl: Paul Graham
* PS1: American Night
* NY Times: A Shimmer of Possibility
* Artnet: Paul Graham

ASX CHANNEL: Paul Graham

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(© David Chandler, 2008. All rights reserved. All images © copyright the photographer and/or publisher)

DIANE ARBUS: “Notes from the Margin of Spoiled Identity – The Art of Diane Arbus” (1988)

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011


Untitled, (1970-71)

By Gerry Badger, Originally Published in Phototexts, 1988

‘Photography both loots and preserves, denounces and consecrates.’

Susan Sontag1

The principal issue raised by the remarkable photographs of Diane Arbus seems not to be their remarkableness, which few would dispute, but their morality. The very potency of her images, their dangerous, disturbing allure, demands an almost instantaneous moral judgement on the part of the viewer. Her pictures call forth an immediate stance which, it would seem, just cannot remain equivocal, yet which in many cases is tinged with uneasy contradiction. To some, Arbus is seen as the prime exemplar of the fundamental baseness of the photographic act, that act which caters ineffably to the disinterested voyeur lurking in us all. Others laud her for her compassion and her humanity, finding in her work an empathy with a disadvantaged subject matter to rival that of Riis, or Hine, or any of the great photographic humanists.

Photographic morality is an issue of some complexity, particularly where the photograph involves people. For the camera is a liar of immense proportions, and yet a liar of immense plausibility. Every photograph is a fiction, constructed by the photographer. That it is a fiction does not preclude it from telling a larger ‘truth’, but the road to that truth is set with devious pitfalls, flagrant cul-de-¬sacs, and blatant misdirections. The subject of a photograph, especially if animate, is drawn directly into the photographer’s game. That game might be the Truth Game, but is more likely to be ‘Truth or Dare’. There are few photographs in which the subject matter is wholly abstract, that is to say, wholly neutral. One cannot suspend disbelief for a second, as conceivably one might with a painting or drawing, and imagine that the subject of one’s favourite photographic nude really is Ariadne or Olympia, even the vamp or the virgin. The archetype may have been called for by the casting director, but always it is Miss Smith the photographer’s model – not the myth, not the handling of painted surfaces – with which we must deal, directly and overwhelmingly. As Susan Sontag put it (with the subject of this essay clearly in mind). ‘In photographing dwarfs, you don’t get majesty & beauty, you get dwarfs.’2 Ms. Sontag reveals not only an interesting slip – Freudian or otherwise – in relation to small people, but also exhibits a common prejudice towards photography. It is the ultimate purpose of this essay to refute Sontag’s statement with regard to both Arbus and the medium, but for the moment I shall let it pass, except to say that its implications are twofold. Firstly, as a widely held notion – part truism, part misconception – it means that photography itself is stigmatised by a gap between actual and intended, between what the medium proposes and what it disposes. And secondly, the very existence of that gap imposes a clear moral conundrum.

Puerto Rican woman with a beauty mark, N.Y.C. (1965)

The specificity of photography, the imagined lack of any mediation between world and image, places a particular moral responsibility upon the practitioner – the perpetrator of this crime of the fiction that is not a fiction that is a fiction – and by extension upon subject and viewer, accessories before and after the fact. In the main, however, impeachment of the latter might be nominal only. The involvement is strictly secondhand, passive rather than active, for subject as much as viewer. Even when attempting knowingly to conspire with the photographer, the subject generally accedes to the practitioner’s directions, with minimal control over the final look of the image, and crucially, over its dissemination. Subject and viewer may at least enter a plea of extenuating circumstances, but never, never a photographer. A. D. Coleman put it succinctly when he wrote that the photograph made with conscious intent is inevitably a ‘remaking of an event into the photographer’s own image, and thus an assumption of godhead. To live outside the law, you must be honest.’3

All photography is potentially exploitative, photographic portraiture is inherently exploitative. The potential for misanthropy invariably thrives whenever one human being has power and control over another. The reality of photographic exploitation might be eradicated only in theory, in the practicable implausibility of subject’s and photographer’s aims coinciding exactly. Until then, apologists for the medium might seek only mitigation, and practitioners proceed with consideration, awareness, and humility. There is, however, I would submit, a question of degree. Exploitation of subject by photographer might be viewed as a continuum, ranging from the mildest at one end to the grossest at the other. Can one therefore define, and quantify, a ‘benign’ as opposed to a ‘malignant’, an ‘honest’ as opposed to a ‘dishonest’ exploitation? We must ask a number of pertinent questions in each case. Precisely how has the photographer ‘exploited’ the subject? Did the photographic transaction take place with the subject’s prior knowledge or consent? What is the purpose of the image? Has the subject been allowed or denied a voice? Does the picture appear to serve the ideological good or ill? (An especially tricky one this). Any answers must be highly contingent, but can play their part in deciding whether we are dealing in a particular instance with photographic morality or lack of it. Few would seem to believe that the medium is wholly beyond redemption. Even Sontag, after roundly villifying all photographs for being morally equivalent – stating that the camera ‘annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibitions’4 – clearly views such figures as Walker Evans and August Sander as being on the side of the angels. Equally clearly, she views Diane Arbus as being indisputably on the side of the Devil.

Transvestite and her birthday cake, N.Y.C., 1969

Any commentator seeking to list photography’s moralists surely would include Lewis Hine, August Sander, and Eugene Smith near the head of their inventory. Hine’s credentials as a moralist are well nigh unimpeachable. He photographed only to effect social change, his camera a positive weapon in the struggle to alleviate the wretched circumstances of the American worker. Sander’s political persona is perhaps more circumspect, more oblique, but no less creditable. He remains the photographic sociologist par excellence, obsessed with rendering scientifically the physiognomy of the individual as it is marked indelibly by class. Smith is the great photographic humanist, the romantic non-conformist, the lone crusader who fought both against the iniquities of corporate capitalism and for the photographic medium. But Diane Arbus? Can she, by any stretch of the imagination, be counted amongst this company? Or does her work evince a clear immorality by concentrating upon society’s and nature’s victims in a manner wholly devoid of compassionate purpose, exemplifying a distant view that is at once sinister and self-indulgent? To my mind, as one of the minority – albeit a sizeable minority – who would advocate her morality as an artist, any conclusion would seem to hinge upon answers to the following questions. Firstly, does the hedonistic, sensation seeking aspect of the work outweigh its psychological authenticity? Secondly, did Arbus attempt, however haphazardly, to formulate a programmatic interpretation of American mores? Putting it another way, was Diane Arbus fundamentally an honest photographer, and, what does she say to us? Beginning with the first of these questions, there is little doubt that Arbus appreciated what one might term the self-indulgent aspect of the photographic enterprise. It is a factor she herself stressed in her own published statements about her work. Indeed, she would appear to have been an indefatigable player of photographic games and a tireless seeker after camera fodder:

‘I always thought of photography as a naughty thing to do, that was one of my favourite things about it, and when I first did it, I felt very perverse.’5

Our subject herself hardly gets us off to an auspicious beginning in the morality stakes. And yet this artistic hedonism was typical of the cultural milieu from which Diane Arbus emerged, limited by no means to photographers. Her whole being was shot through with Greenwich Village bohemianism, that nineteen-fifties New York art scene cocktail of surrealism blended with expressionism, spiced with narcissism and sponteneity, a lifestyle and an artistic philosophy that conceived of the world as a succession of spicy stimulii to the senses rather than as an imperative for moral action. However, to suggest that Arbus’s predatory penchant wholly dominates the ethos of the work is, I submit, a mistake. As is reading too much into the coy pronouncements of artists. Many statements made by Arbus – exaggerated, self-deprecating, slightly mocking – sound nothing more than a good old-fashioned New York ‘put on’. Diane’s craving for the hunt, her unabashed revelling in the thrills of the chase, seems no greater nor lesser an impulse than that of any artist in search of a subject. Going out into the field, entering lives for a brief while and then leaving them, was necessary for the work. That is the nature sometimes of the artistic quest, but it is a nature wholly condemned by Susan Sontag:

‘Being a professional photographer can be thought of as naughty, to use Arbus’s pop word, if the photographer seeks out subjects considered to be disreputable, taboo, marginal… Photographing an appalling underworld (and a desolate, plastic overworld), she had no intention of entering into the horror experienced by the denizens of those worlds. They are to remain exotic, hence ‘terrific’. Her view is always from the outside… Arbus was not a poet delving into her entrails to relate her own pain but a photographer venturing out into the world to collect images that are painful.’6

Boy with a Toy Grenade in Central Park, (1962)

In the foregoing, Sontag harps upon the predatory, colonising urge of the photographer as if it were unique. She might write in the same vein about the painter, the film-maker, the novelist, the sociologist. How often does the writer engage in field research and interview subjects outside his or her social milieu? How perverse and naughty did Degas feel when making his justly celebrated monotype series on life in a Parisian brothel? Did Sander and Hine work any more from the ‘inside’ than Diane Arbus? However, I am not seeking to absolve her merely by indicting others. Whilst the vicarious pleasures of disinterested observation – in a word, voyeurism – might be acknowledged, the purpose of the serious artist is surely more complex, profound, and intrinsically worthwhile.

Much of the negative criticism of Arbus focuses, in one way or another, upon her aggression. Firstly, there is her presumed aggression towards her subjects. This is usually characterised as extreme, an easy indictment to make, since Arbus violated, or rather extended the canons of acceptable distance between photographer and model by frequently moving in perilously close. However, since almost all of her images were made with her subjects’ consent, the charge must be levelled indirectly. This is effected by maintaining that the aggression of Arbus was disguised by soft words and careful dissembling. It was, in short, aggression by stealth, a typical strategy of many photographers. Arbus, it is claimed, by maintaining a generally frontal stance and manoeuvring into close proximity, created an ostensible intimacy in her pictures, and thereby a false aura of empathy with the pictured. This bogus theatre of empathy is reinforced by the formality of the picture-making situation. Arbus’s subjects face the camera stiffly and bravely, often, it would seem, seeking to assuage any doubts with a frank stare. Mostly, they seem in full, if somewhat uneasy acquiescence with the photographer. But, say the detractors, they could hardly know what Arbus was doing. Her ‘victims’ were duped, evidently with some suspicion on their part, but generally left unawares that they indeed were victimised by a thoroughly unscrupulous predator. The photographer’s game, according to her negative critics, was to court this awkward intimacy specifically in order to make her sitters look strange and demented. As Ian Jeffrey wrote in his review of the major Arbus retrospective of the early nineteen-seventies, the posthumous exhibition which did much to establish her reputation – or perhaps fuel the controversy:

‘…There is a stress on the grotesque, many of the figures are ugly, their settings are mundane and their actions are perturbing… Virtually everything she pictures is strange and in the course of being fixed as a picture it becomes stranger.’7

Teenage couple on Hudson Street, N.Y.C. (1963)

To some, Arbus effected this negative transformation in virtually every picture she made. To others, it was more selective, deliberately and peculiarly inverted. Perhaps the most widespread of comments on Arbus is that she made ‘normals’ look like ‘freaks’, and, conversely, ‘freaks’ look like ‘normals’’. Almost every commentator on her work mentions the division of Arbus subjects into two groups, one, the chosen – middle class, Middle America, relatively affluent – and two – the misfits, the poor, the racially stigmatised, the physically handicapped, the psychologically disturbed, the sexually deviant. She constructed, in the words of Ian Jeffrey, ‘a perverse parody of a social structure.’8 Jeffrey is, I feel, unduly harsh in his choice of the adjective ‘perverse’, but he is one of the few critics to suggest a potential reading of Arbus along social lines. Few have viewed this clear labelling of types in Arbus as an invitation for sociological speculation. Fewer still have asked if Arbus may have intended to make comparisons between social groups. Her work is assumed automatically to have been wholly egocentric and inward looking – typically nineteen-sixties, typically American, typically internalised ‘women’s’ art.

Yet one interesting parallel to Arbus, occasionally mooted by critics, is George Grosz, that savage chronicler of Weimar Republic mores. Arbus herself, from an early age, admitted to a liking for his work. Certainly, there is little doubt that Arbus could be resolutely fearsome when she desired, utilising the caricaturing power of the camera to satirise quite as cruelly as Grosz. She may not have been especially politically minded, and in no way active in political life, but in her images of political demonstrations, such as Boy with a straw hat waiting to march in a pro-war parade, NYC (1967), we would seem to be given an unequivocal statement of her viewpoint, at least on that singular issue. We are given a clear demonstration of just who she considered a ‘freak’, just who was beyond the pale and a worthy target of deprecation. Here, a tentative link with Grosz would seem apparent. The mediation, the expression of the artist’s purpose within the pro-war marcher image could hardly be mistaken. But such mediation is much less obvious in other Arbus images and prompts a question. Can it be that Grosz’s savaging of the human form is praised simply because he was a painter, and therefore at least one degree removed from the actuality he portrayed? Is Arbus the photographer denigrated because her mediation was too subtle to be perceived by naive viewers, by even a Sontag? Is subject confused with image by many viewers, and Arbus seen only as the wilful recorder of distasteful sensation, and not as a conscious, cogent commentator upon the human situation? Is the issue obscured by the apparent rawness of the photograph’s reality, an irrational fear that takes us back to the stealing of souls? As Stanford Schwartz has observed, ‘the nugget of reality in a photograph will always subvert the photographer’s intentions.’9 Is Sontag forgetting, as Schwartz reminds us further, that the ‘process of testing a work, to see how much of it is emotionally and intellectually fake, and how much true, goes on whatever we look at or read or listen to.’10
Mexican dwarf in his hotel room in N.Y.C. (1970)

It really would seem that Sontag at times is blind to this salient point, and blind also, to the pictures’ actuality. She states, for example, that Woman with a veil on Fifth Avenue, NYC (1968) is ‘characteristically ugly’,11 a conclusion that would seem to have been prompted by the closeup clarity of the woman’s rather fleshy face as rendered by electronic flash. But is Sontag reduced to such a blindly literal view? ‘When you photograph dwarfs, you get dwarfs.’ Is it simply her own prejudice that causes her to equate ageing with ugliness, and promotes an unwarranted misreading of this, and by implication many other Arbus images? Does Sontag’s own imagistic naivety cause her in turn to accuse Arbus of an ill intentioned naivety? For in my view the veiled woman of Arbus is rather handsome. Sontag might have pondered how Richard Avedon might have treated such a subject. As Alfred Appel Jr. has noted, we may presume that ‘this woman’s cultural expectations are positive’.12 Indeed, the image would seem to be about confidence and privilege rather than ageing. The image’s formal qualities, the mixture of sensuous textures, of fur, lace, and glistening skin, speak of affluence and smugness, not mortification and decay. Arbus has commented, certainly, but she has not ‘uglified’, nor savaged unduly. I know of few photographs which parody better the self-satisfaction of a particular kind of American bourgeois matron, a critique which, as Sontag notes accusingly, might be personally motivated on the part of the photographer. But what art, at root, is not? However – and this is a central problem with the formalist ¬documentary school of sixties and seventies American photography, the information that prompts one to read an image in socio-political terms may simply have dropped off in the picture frame by accident, unmediated and unintended by the photographer. Are, for example, Lee Friedlander’s startling portraits of factory workers apparently welded to the machines they operate primarily refined exercises in cute, surrealistic camera collaging, or are they the finest images to symbolise the contingent realities of factory existence since those of Lewis Hine?

Let us consider another image by Arbus, her superb Topless dancer in her dressing room, San Fancisco, California (1968). During that portrait session, the photographer probably shot at least one roll of film, possibly a lot more. From a number of possibilities, she then selected, perhaps even directed the image she would print. An image in which the subject just happened to smile wryly, in which one finger just happens to be fondling one of the primary tools of her trade, her left breast. Add to that the glitter of her gown and her heavily made-up face, contrasting starkly with the surrounding dressing room squalor, and we have a picture laced with irony. And it is an irony in which the subject, by her very gesture, colludes willingly. It is an irony every bit as warm and empathetic as that displayed by E. J. Bellocq’s splendid Storyville prostitute of 1912, who mockingly toasts herself with a glass of whisky.

So, in just three images in the Arbus oeuvre – the pro-war demonstrator, the veiled woman, and the topless woman – we might see three widely differing rhetorics in the photographer’s expressive armoury. Firstly – savage satire. Secondly – firm but not cruel disapprobation. Thirdly – warm, collaborative irony. I could continue. There is the unsentimental, but manifestly sympathetic straightforwardness of Mexican dwarf in his hotel room, NYC (1970), an image in which, contrary to Sontag, one reads humanity first and dwarf only in a secondary capacity. There is the gawky joy of Girl in a shiny dress, NYC (1967), no Vogue or Harper’s starlet this, but no monster either, just a girl having a good time. There is a further example of the artist’s disapprobation in Teenage couple on Hudson Street, NYC (1963), where the deprecation seems directed not at her subjects but at a society which forces children into such prematurely adult roles. And there is the pathos of Woman on a bed with her shirt off, NYC (1968), a shattering picture that by virtue of its utter poignancy surely refutes the all-too-easy myth of the calculating outsider or blatant opportunist.

Boy with a straw hat waiting to march in a pro-war parade, N.Y.C. (1967)

Let’s suppose however . . . Let’s suppose that the primary source by which we know the work of Diane Arbus, the posthumous Aperture monograph,13 was titled differently. Let’s suppose that Diane Arbus – An Aperture Monograph, was entitled something like American Photographs, or The Americans. Surely we would be inclined to temper our formalist/ psychological reading with one more related to the social documentary. And if we indeed look at the monograph less in terms of a series of individual, stylistically related images, and more in terms of a cogent entity, what do we find? I think we find something interesting. We find, I believe, a document – a personalised document perhaps, but no more so than that of Robert Frank in the preceding decade. We find a work in which the commentary upon the social structure – though couched in personal terms and mediated through the psychological – is precise and intelligently considered, and a deal less ‘perverse’ than many commentators have surmised. The Aperture monograph was published in 1972, shortly after Arbus’s death. It was edited by Marvin Israel and the photographer’s daughter, Doon Arbus. The book, considering its specialist nature, has been a phenomenal success. It has sold in excess of 100,000 copies, and has been instrumental in fuelling the lurid posthumous legend of Arbus. Perhaps from a feeling of disquiet at this, perhaps because more Arbus material remains to be released on the art market, perhaps because the book has been so influential, but Israel tended to disparage the monograph in later years, as in his introduction to the book on her magazine work:

‘Guided by her own selectivity, the monograph attempted to portray, through her words and pictures, how she saw herself as an artist. As a collection of some of her best work and a clue to her intentions it served a purpose. But as a depiction of a career, for which it has since been held accountable, it is misleading.’14

That may be so, but the book remains a powerful, complex, and cohesive statement, and much more than a collection of ‘greatest hits’. Indeed, I would rate it as one of the most cogent volumes of ‘poetic documentary’ photographs to be published since Robert Frank’s The Americans. Certainly, it is a partial, internalised view, but it is a view of society, or more accurately of experience in society. But then that is precisely what Frank’s book was. John Szarkowski has written aptly:

‘For most Americans the meaning of the Vietnam War was not political, or military, or even ethical, but psychological. It brought to us a sudden, unambiguous knowledge of moral frailty and failure. The photographs that best memorialise the shock of that new knowledge were perhaps made halfway round the world, by Diane Arbus.’15

But how might we define Arbus’s theme? As Szarkowski suggests, the tenor of her work was psychological rather than ideological or sociological. Her theme was not overtly political, and hardly sprang from any deep seated ideological conviction, yet Arbus certainly had an interest in the workings of society, specifically, an interest in human relationships as they are acted upon by society. This comes through in the work generally as a sense of alienation and disaffection, a result perhaps of personal failure in her own relationships, one might be tempted to say. But surely it is also a reflection of moral failure in society, a reflection of how the success and power orientated ethos of America – and indeed the modern industrial/capitalist world – both atrophies personal human relationships and automatically marginalises those perceived as less than successful or powerful.

A lobby in a building, N.Y.C. (1966)

Let me quote two observations about Arbus, from roughly opposing views of the photographer. Nevertheless, they would seem to agree upon the primary leitmotif in her work, upon her oeuvre’s intent if not its effect. Firstly, Amy Goldin writes:

‘Arbus’s central theme is the futility of artifice. . . the distance between what is chosen and what is given.’16

Secondly, Ian Jeffrey once more, musing upon a statement the photographer herself made in the introductory text to the monograph about the ‘gap between intention and effect’:17

‘It is though she is obsessed by the peculiarities which arise from the distance between intention and effect, and having established this as her peculiar insight documented it where and whenever it was found.’18

There are divisions in society other than those of class, ideology, race, or gender – smaller divisions which cut across the larger in many ways. There are those blessed or cursed with a minority sexual orientation, those with physical or mental disabilities, those whose lifestyles, for differing reasons, do not concur with the dominant consensus. To be outside the dominant societal groups, or at odds with the dominant ideologies, is to be marked as being apart. And for those so marked, the majority reserves its disapprobation in one form or another – be that censure light or heavy, tacit or overt, relatively benign or disproportionately punitive. To be seen to ‘challenge’ the norm is to be stigmatised, accorded the position of outsider. The stigmatised, if only in relation to the group which defines their particular norm, form a class apart, a sub-class. Even what at first glance may seem a nominal minor stigma, a peripheral deviation, can have far reaching social implications – quite as much for the individual as the ‘major’ divisions of socio-economic background, race, or religion. ‘Freak’, in short, is decidedly a class issue. Thus the ‘distance’, the ‘gap’ that both Goldin and Jeffrey perceive Arbus exploring, would seem to transcend the purely individual inflection, and address the wider question of stigma in society. The clues or symbols we are asked to decode in Arbus’s pictures relate consistently to issues of normalcy and freak. Time and time again in her work, by means of deliberate inversions and finely calculated absurdities, by drawing and then subverting boundaries between stigmatised and non-stigmatised, Arbus gave voice to, yet also mocked the often ridiculous struggle we put up in order to bridge the gap between intention and realisation, between acceptance and non-acceptance. She focused particularly upon the sometimes grotesque efforts in which we indulge in order to mitigate life’s iniquities and inequalities, honing in upon those institutions of mutual comfort, the club and the tribe. She concentrated upon the often perverse and arcane rituals each ‘club’ – even a club of one – evolves to protect its identity, rituals expressed most vividly in costume and uniform, which both display and yet mask the true nature of the tribal identity. Ritual and costumes outwardly define a role, but Arbus nagged constantly at the sham of many of the roles which we adopt. Her subjects so often are forced, either by nature or society, to adopt the wrong role. They are forced to join the wrong club, cast invariably to play Rigoletto rather than the Duke.

A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y. (1970)

Much of the mock heroism, the bitter irony, indeed the deep pessimism in the work of Diane Arbus would seem to derive from her acute demonstration of this one immutable truth. Her vision was racked with a continuous sense of falling short in life. We are frustrated because we have chosen the wrong role in life, or more frequently, because the wrong role has chosen us. Or we have been ‘fortunate’ enough to have emanated from a milieu of apparent wordly success (like Arbus), we perhaps realise from the outset that the whole performance is a travesty. Arbus shows that most of us seek in some way to escape (optimists might say transcend) an undesired self, a self which might exist only inside our own heads, or which might be scarred materially from birth to death, by a cruel nature or uncaring society. Many remark upon the grotesque qualities of Arbus’s work, seeing it in terms of perverted, voyeuristic glee. Few choose to see it in terms of unmitigated pessimism. Her view of society, of the innate destiny of humankind, is as profoundly bleak and as jaundiced as that of her twin mentors, George Grosz and Lisette Model. Even Arbus’s babies are tainted, bearing the marks of life’s vicissitudes to come, losers from the outset. Yet Arbus was palpably less cruel than Model, and infinitely less prurient than Grosz. Both emigré European artists seemed thoroughgoing misanthropes, who seemed to have viewed themselves, and mankind, as beyond redemption. Arbus’s vision seems heroically tragic by comparison. She was not, I trust, displaying her cynical side when she made the following observation:

‘Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.’19

The question, as always, is whether her sentiments, her assumption of the privileged position as confidante to the stigmatised, her adoption of the mantle of the ‘wise’, as the sociologist Erving Goffman put it,20 was genuine, or simply a strategy. I cannot deny that her own words on occasions leave a degree of equivocation. There seems little doubt that Arbus was inquisitive, acquisitive, voyeuristic to a degree, and certainly aggressive in her pursuit of images. Even when invited, she invaded the psychological space of her subjects to an alarming degree. The central issue is, however, for whom does she ultimately speak? Are her subjects allowed a clear voice? That, to my mind, is the central issue, not just in Arbus, but in all portrait photography. The portrait photographer has been entrusted with a sitter’s identity, with his or her humanity, and should, I believe, honour that trust. Obviously, one makes images in order to have one’s say – photographers no less than painters, film-makers, or poets. Arbus clearly had a compulsion to tell her story, probably a greater compulsion than most of her unknowing subjects. However, the story she had to tell about herself could also be told about her subjects – a story of alienation, loneliness, sadness, resilience, and courage. And here, she was surely with her subjects rather than against them. Without flattering or patronising them, without compromising her own feelings (we know exactly who she was for and what she was against), without prejudicing her position in the photographic avant-garde, Arbus fabricated an imagery that would seem both report and self-portrait, both confession and indictment, a cri-de-coeur upon her own behalf but also upon behalf of the photographed.

Girl in Her Circus Costume, MD (1970)

Sontag contends21 that Arbus’s view was always from the ‘outside’, that of the privileged insider looking lecherously at society’s outsiders. Arbus, she maintains, was a pseudo-outsider. I would say, rather, that Arbus’s view was from both inside and outside. She certainly maintained the artist’s crucial detachment, that of consciousness and intent. There is, however, enough evidence to conclude that, like many of her subjects, Arbus stood in the world somewhat ‘precariously’, perfectly situated to empathise fully with her sitters. In her private life, there seemed an increasingly uneasy dichotomy between two worlds, between the upper middle class, Jewish milieu of her family, and the cosmopolitan, raffish fringes of Greenwich Village bohemianism. One can concur with Sontag22 that a strong whiff of épater le bourgeois pervades Arbus’s work. There are clear elements of rebellion, guilt, and revenge, the standard poor little rich girl scenario of thumbing her nose at her parents, of exorcising her husband and her failed marriage. But can we make too much of this? And interestingly, do we make too much of it simply because Arbus was a woman? Do we – female commentators included – practice an unwitting sexist double think in this regard? No one has ever accused Robert Frank of the same kind of guilty retaliation, though he was another Jewish bohemian of middle class origins with a chaotic private life, another social photographer with a political programme as non-existent as that of Arbus.

Yet the notion of Arbus’s view as specifically a woman’s view does have some credence. Her psychological frailty has been utilised frequently to explain the work, but art historian Kathleen Campbell23 and others have offered a contrary, more positive theory. They have argued that Arbus ‘went against nature’ by usurping a typically male role, the Baudelairian flâneur, the urban ‘stroller’. For Baudelaire, the flâneur was the epitome of contemporary urban man, casually strolling the city pavements, carefully maintaining both his anonymity and psychological distance in the crowds, taking in the myriad acts of street theatre with the disinterested eye of the practised voyeur. Here, we might begin to see where Arbus was the genuine outsider in societal terms, appropriating an essentially male perogative – that of staring. And as Nancy Henley reminds us, the very act of staring is an overt display of masculine power:

‘Staring is used to assert dominance, to establish, to maintain, and regain it.’24

Transvestite with torn stocking, N.Y.C. (1966)

By appropriating, and also subverting such a powerful and almost exclusively male convention, by conspicuously demonstrating such an independent ‘free’ spirit, it is not surprising that Arbus’s pictures shocked so much, and still remain dangerous. It is hardly surprising that she attracted so much negative comment, of the inordinately vituperative kind that dogged her career, and which has continued, unabated, after her death – far more negative comment than the work itself surely merits, despite its admitted problems. As Sarah Kent has noted with regard to masculine conventions, imagistic or otherwise:

‘One challenges these conventions at one’s peril. For they are not merely annoyances to be circumvented with care and sensibility, nor just an example of one individual imposing authority or asserting dominance over another in a person to person encounter. Underlying these trivial social limitations are much more profound restrictions on looking and enquiry.’25

At last, we might locate a programme for Arbus, a critique of orthodox ‘insider/ outsider’ relationships with, as the more perceptive critics have noted, a particular subversion of gender relationships. For if Arbus denotes vertical divisions in society by articulating classes of stigmatised and non¬stigmatised, she cuts horizontally, so to speak, across this schema in her treatment of gender. Whether depicting the self-satisfied middle classes or the psychologically frail margins, she invariably pictures her women as stronger than her men. The natural warp is a lot more twisted in Arbus’s male of the species. Ian Jeffrey writes:

‘The women of Diane Arbus may be unsettling, near savage in one or two cases, but they are positive and certain in their femininity where the Arbus men are almost without exception pathetic and ludicrous. If not actually intimidated many of the men act and dress as women. It is a world turned upside down where the truck driver paints his nails and wears a slip whilst the Lady at a masked ball with two roses on her dress, NYC (1967) has the build and charm of an all-in wrestler. As a composite picture of the American people it is a mocking denial of the American archetypes we have learned to recognise.’26

Arbus might be the paradigm of the psychological portraitist, exploiting her subjects to a degree by utilising them as sounding boards through which she could plumb the depths of her own psyche. Yet the psychological is seldom wholly divorced from the social, and Arbus surely recognised this, intuitively and artistically. She used this insight to create a gallery of American characters that, on a perhaps narrower but no less epic canvas, echoes August Sanders’ heroic characterisation of Weimar Germany. Diane Arbus fashioned her own, cogent critique of American mores, enlivened by an absorbing inversion of finite sexual roles and gender imperatives. Her view was complex, highly individual, perhaps a little perverse, but never perverted – a sad, moving testament to the human condition.


1. Susan Sontag, On Photography (Farrar, Straus and Giroux Inc., New York, 1977). Pages 64-65.
2. Ibid., page 29.
3. A. D. Coleman, Light Readings: A Photography Critic’s Writings, 1968-1978 (Oxford University Press, New York, 1979). Page 126.
4. Sontag, op. cit., page 41.
5. Diane Arbus, quoted in Sontag, op. cit., pages 12-13.
6. Sontag, op. cit., page 13, page 42, and page 40.
7. Ian Jeffrey, Diane Arbus and American Freaks, in Studio International (London), March 1974, Vol. 187, No. 964. Page 133.
8. Ibid., page 134.
9. Sandford Schwartz, A Box of Jewish Giants, Russian Midgets, and Banal Suburban Groups, in Art in America (New York), November/December, 1977. Page 68.
10. Ibid.
11. Sontag, op. cit., page 37.
12. Alfred Appell Jr., Signs of Life (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1983). Pages 128-129.
13. Diane Arbus, Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph (Aperture Books Inc., Millerton, N.Y., 1972). Unpaginated.
14. Marvin Israel, in Diane Arbus: Magazine Work (Aperture Books, Millerton, N.Y., 1982). Page 5.
15. John Szarkowski, Mirrors and Windows (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1978). Page 13.
16. Amy Goldin, Diane Arbus: Playing With Conventions, in Art in America (New York), March/April, 1973. Page 73.
17. Diane Arbus, Monograph, op. cit., quotation from tape of masterclass.
18. Jeffrey, op. cit., page 134.
19. Diane Arbus, Monograph, op. cit., quotation from tape of masterclass.
20. See Irving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (Prentice- Hall Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1966, and Pelican Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1968).
21. Sontag, op. cit., page 42.
22. Ibid., page 44.
23. Kathleen Campbell, The Heroes of Modern Life: Diane Arbus and the Nineteenth Century Origins of Modernism. Paper given at the SPE Conference, Hotel del Coronado, San Diego, California, April 14, 1987.
24. Nancy Henley, Body Politics (New Jersey, 1977). Page 166.
25. Sarah Kent, Looking Back, in Sarah Kent and Jacqueline Morreau, Women’s Images of Men (Writers and Readers Publishing Co-operative Society, London, 1985). Pages 56-57.
26. Jeffrey, op. cit., page 134.

BOOKS: Diane Arbus

* Revelations (2003)
* Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph (2005)
* Diane Arbus: Untitled (2005)
* Diane Arbus: Magazine Work (2005)
* Diane Arbus: Family Albums (2003)

Around the WEB: Diane Arbus

* Wikipedia: Diane Arbus
* Artnet: Diane Arbus
* SF MOMA: Diane Arbus
* NPR: “Diane Arbus’ Identical Twins”
* Washington Post: “Diane Arbus: Revealed And Rediscovered”
* Haber Arts: Diane Arbus