A Page from Diane Arbus’s 1964 Diary: “Plans to do: Racial pimps (sic), teenagers, family, gangsters, homosexual, weddings, whores, pimps, Rock n’ Roll group, old people’s club…”
Like the sadistic and exploitative gaze of an Andy Warhol, who “deserved” to die according to Valerie Solanas, the photographic freak images by Diane Arbus, exhibited at the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh, reveal a similar sadomasochistic quality. Images taken in the 1960s and early 1970s before her suicide in 1971 portray the sadness of marginal people in their surroundings.
There is Jack Dracula, who performed at Hubert’s Museum as the “Tattooed Man” in the 1960s, with tattoos such as the names Boris Karloff and Dracula inscribed on his skin and images of bats, Dracula and Frankenstein. There are photographs of twins and other subjects in blurred and dark surroundings enclosing their claustrophobic lives. For example Arbus received criticism because of the perception that she was too manipulative and that her desire to present people as freaks overwhelmed the subjects themselves. In the case of the twins photograph Arbus made the girls stand so close together they looked like conjoined twins, but they were not. In this way Arbus’s art overtook the reality of the twins’ life.
There is nothing positive or promising in these photographs; only the torn lives of people or their empty gaze pointing to a haunting past or a futile future. Their story does not matter for Arbus. She arguably stole the lives of her subjects to invigorate her career. In the gallery space the spectator is surrounded by insignificant others. We will never hear about or see them again, they don’t matter, perhaps they are already dead, as they were possibly for Arbus after their photograph was taken. The gallery asserts the message that Arbus loved her subjects and the claim that she was sympathetic to their condition is repeated. Maybe there is a sense of guilt following her photographs, of her consuming appetites to categorize certain people as freaks and then sell them. Jack Dracula, talking about Arbus, refers to her insistence that she take photographs of him for free and also his fears of the material being misused, misinterpreted by the artist and her “cultivated” viewer. Sontag wrote that Arbus’s subjects were “people who are pathetic, pitiable, as well as repulsive” and that the photographs were taken “based on distance, on privilege, on a feeling that what the viewer is asked to look at is really other”. These others fascinated Arbus because perhaps, they reflected the way she saw her own self.
A flower girl at a wedding in Connecticut (1964) becomes through Arbus’s eyes a tormented character in a gothic setting, a ghostly figure in a funereal landscape:
“A Castle in Disneyland” (1962) (which is not included in this exhibition) plays with the illusion of the image but also with the exploitation of mainstream culture of the gothic and consequently with Arbus’s exploitation of the spectacle:
This image, like the following one, focuses on what is missing, on lack, on absence.
The gothic “A House on a Hill” is full of absence, of people, of life, of New York, of the things that should be there but are not. A facade of a house that is not, a Hollywood setting perhaps, an illusion. Arbus liked the idea of masks, of masking, of the illusion of the image.
Her tortured self is maybe more present in these photographs than her subjects were. The emptiness of the steel, cold images of black and white tell the story of someone that found death more promising than life itself.
Diane Arbus Exhibition, Artist Rooms, Dean Gallery, Edinburgh 13th March-13th June 2010
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