When photographer Diane Arbus visited London in 1970, she wrote in a letter, "Nobody seems miserable, drunk, crippled, mad, or desperate. I finally found a few vulgar things in the suburbs, but nothing sordid yet."
We daresay that if she had just asked Londonist, we could have pointed her in some promising directions. (Okay we weren't around in 1970, but still.) In any case, the letter from London seems to confirm everyone's worst fears upon encountering her art: that she was a visual predator, an obscene tourist, scouring streets where she didn't belong searching for a images to steal that would shock and repulse the bourgeoisie and delight the radical-chic.
But actually walking through the exhibition that just opened at the V&A can't leave that simplistic perception intact. At the same time, the text you read as you enter the exhibition, which celebrates her photographs' "bold commitment to the celebration of things as they are" rings just as false. She is, simply, too good a photographer for either label — the creepy voyeur or the humanist documentarian — to stick.
Any encounter with Arbus can't help but be coloured by the opinions of the late, great Susan Sontag. On the occasion of Arbus's reputation-establishing exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (mounted in 1972, the year after her suicide), Sontag published a scathing attack in the New York Review, which later ended up in her book On Photography. The gist of her criticism is that Arbus, in focusing on ugly subjects with whom the viewer is assumed to have nothing in common, enacts the alienation of contemporary America — in Sontag's words, she "anatomizes the human condition into horror." This interpretation, however, rests on a number of questionable assumptions about the relationships between the photographer, the subject, and the viewer:
A large part of the mystery of Arbus's photographs lies in what they suggest about how her subjects felt after consenting to be photographed. Do they see themselves, the viewer wonders, like that? Do they know how grotesque they are? It seems as if they don't.... Though most viewers are ready to imagine that these people, certainly the members of the sexual underworld as well as the genetic freaks, are unhappy, in few of the pictures do people actually show psychic distress. The photographs of deviates and real freaks don't stress their pain; rather, their detachment and autonomy. The female impersonators in their dressing rooms, the Russian midgets in a living-room on 100th Street, the Mexican dwarf in his Manhattan hotel room, and their kin are mostly shown as cheerful, self-accepting, matter-of-fact, unselfconscious.
Arbus's defenders would reply, "well, exactly!" The beauty of her work lies precisely in the way she presents outsiders as utterly normal, going about their lives without shame. If this revelation is unsettling to an audience with overly restrictive views on beauty, and the kind of faces which belong in art, so much the better.
However, while this reasoning makes sense for the images of tranny performers, circus freaks, and dwarf actors — who, after all, make their living asking people to look at them — it doesn't hold up so well in the case of a not-very-attractive girl wearing too much eye makeup, or an elderly couple dressed up like a king and queen for a dance, or (most troublingly) a group of learning-disabled kids on a fun outing in the park. These images seem, in the words of the Observer's Sean O'Hagan, "like the visual equivalent of a mugging."
Her technical skill as photographer can make even the most innocuous subject appear bizarre; a favourite effect is to photograph figures from very subtly skewed, off-kilter angles so that the scene seems about to topple over (see "Teenage Couple" to the left). Comparing the images she printed with the contact-sheet images she rejected confirms (if confirmation were needed) that her eye sought out the pose that most made her subjects look like aliens — compare "Child with Toy Hand Grenade," above, to this image, which accompanies a fascinating interview with the boy in the picture.
But attempting to resolve these questions turns walking through the exhibition into an impossible exercise in moral calculus. Exactly how intrusive is this image of an interracial couple? Was this women more complicit in her representation than that woman? Should I feel bad about enjoying the picture of the screaming baby? Should I feel good about being repulsed by the bejewelled rich lady?
All of Arbus's pictures were taken between 1958 and 1971, and you might think that in the three decades since her death we might have collectively figured out, come to some sort of a consensus, on what constitutes "good" and "bad" looking. We haven't. Look no further than the utterly dispiriting low level of the debate surrounding Alison Lapper Pregnant in Trafalgar Square. (Did we hear someone on television say "it's not art because it has a message"? What the fuck?)
Meanwhile, in Paris, John Galliano sent larger women, older women and dwarves down the runway in his most recent show for Dior, to be met by titters and guffaws from the fashion world. (Cathy Horyn in the New York Times reports that someone came up to her afterwards to ask, "so what did you think of the monsters?")
Whether you like or loath Arbus's images or what the images say, it would seem that we need to think about the questions they raise right now.
As this article by Janet Malcolm explains, the Arbus estate is notoriously iron-fisted. So, Arbus estate, please don't sue us for using those pictures.