Review: Diane Arbus @ Timothy Taylor Gallery

Dean Nicholas
By Dean Nicholas Last edited 105 months ago
Review: Diane Arbus @ Timothy Taylor Gallery

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Teenage couple on Hudson Street, N.Y.C. ©1963 The Estate of Diane Arbus LLC
In her own words, the subjects Diane Arbus photographed were the "aristocrats" of society. It wasn't a view shared by all: during her brief, brilliant career, Arbus' stark portraits of dwarfs, giants, the blind, people with learning difficulties — those polite society prefers to glance at from the corner of the eye — were derided as cheap, shlocky exploitation. No less an authority than Susan Sontag thought her a vaudeville voyeur, peeking through the bars of the cage while never letting go of the guardrail of her privileged upbringing.

A new show at Timothy Taylor should help to dispel this myth, which lingers despite the four decades that separate us from Arbus' suicide. In this retrospective, which spans her whole career, the "aristocrats" are on display, certainly, each framed with the arresting glare of a photographer who spent a lifetime finding herself in those divorced from the everyday world. Yet the confidence these subjects display is brash, at times unsettling, a wordly understanding that reaches across the years. This being a selling show, the gallery has taken a generalist approach, making it the ideal introduction for those unfamiliar with Arbus — though many will no doubt be acquainted with one of her best-known photographs, the gurning boy in Central Park holding a toy grenade, which is included.

The show's revelation is the lesser known late-period work, shot in the earlier Seventies, in which Arbus photographed residents at homes for those with development disabilities. Her approach is best summed up by one photograph featuring a trio of women: the central character's head appears burrowed into the ground while her companion laughs raucously, at once twinning the two most common reactions to mental disease and demanding of the viewer a reaction that's not always comfortable. It perfectly sums up Arbus' often imitated but seldom equalled style.

Diane Arbus, at Timothy Taylor, 15 Carlos Place, W1K 2EX (map), and 21 Dering Street, W1S 1AL (map). Until 27th June. Entry is free

Last Updated 20 May 2009