Arbus’s dissociated way of seeing


“[Diane] Arbus’s work is a good instance of a leading tendency of high art in capitalist countries: to suppress, or at least reduce, moral and sensory queasiness. Much of modern art is devoted to lowering the threshold of what is terrible. By getting us used to what, formerly, we could not bear to see or hear, because it was too shocking, painful, or embarrassing, art changes morals – that body of psychic custom and [-p.41] public sanctions that draws a vague boundary between what is emotionally and spontaneously intolerable and what is not. The gradual suppression of queasiness does bring us closer to a rather formal truth – that of the arbitrariness of the taboos constructed by art and morals. But our ability to stomach this rising grotesqueness in images (moving and still) and in print has a stiff price. In the long run, it works out not as a liberation of but as a subtraction from the self: a speudo-familiarity with the horrible reinforces alienation, making one less able to react in real life.” (40-41)

“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.” (40)

“The whole point of [-p.42] photographing people is that you are not intervening in their lives, only visiting them. The photographer is supertourist, an extension of the anthropologist, visiting natives and bringing back news of their exotic doings and strange gear. The photographer is always trying to colonize new experiences or find new ways to look at familiar subjects – to fight against boredom. For boredom is just the reverse side of fascination: both depence on being outside rather than inside a situation, and one leads to the other. “The Chinese have a theory that you pass through boredom into fascination,” Arbus noted.” (41-42)

Arbus was not interested in ethical journalism. She chose subjects that she could believe were found, just lying about, without any values attached to them. They are necessarily ahistorical subjects, private rather than public pathology, secret lives rather than open ones.” (42)

“Arbus’s interest in freaks expresses a desire to violate her own innocence, to undermine her sense of being privileged, to vent her frustration at being safe.” (43)

What may seem journalistic, even sensational, in Arbus’s photographs places them, rather, in the main tradition of Surrealist art – their taste for the grotesque, their professed innocence with respect to their subjects, their claim that all subjects are merely objets trouvés. “I would never choose a subject for what it meant to me, when I think of it,” Arbus wrote, a dogged exponent of the Surrealist bluff. Presumably, viewers are not supposed to judge the people she photographs. Of course, we do.” (46)

“‘You see someone on the street,’ Arbus wrote, ‘and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw.'” (34)

A large part of the [-p.36] 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.” (35-36)

“Like Brassaï, Arbus wanted her subjects to be as fully conscious as possible, aware of the act in which they were participating. Instead of trying to coax her subjects into a natural or typical position, they are encouraged to be awkward – that is, to pose. (Thereby, the revelation of self gets identified with what is strange, odd, askew.) Standing or sitting stiffly makes them seem like images of themselves.” (37)

In the normal rhetoric of the photographic portrait, facing the camera signifies solemnity, frankness, the disclosure [-p.38] of the subject’s essence. That is why frontality seems right for ceremonial pictures (like weddings, graduations) but less apt for photographs used on billboards to advertise political candidates. (For politicians the three-quarter gaze is more common: a gaze that soars rather than confronts, suggesting instead of the relation to the viewer, the present, the more ennobling abstract relation to the future.) What makes Arbus’s use of the frontal pose so arresting is that her subjects are often people one would not expect to surrender themselves so amiably and ingenuously to the camera.” (37-38)

Ref: (in the essay ‘America, Seen through photographs, darkly’) Susan Sontag (1979) On Photography. Penguin Books: London


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