Diane Arbus’ Cruel Gaze

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Undeniably, there is something visceral about the photographs of Diane Arbus. I don’t think a viewer could look at any of her better pictures without arriving at a set of possibly complex emotions. I remember when Revelations, the last major retrospective, was shown at various Western museums, I was happy to be able to see it in London, having made a stop there on an otherwise work related trip. The show did not disappoint, and neither did the accompanying catalog (find a review of the book here).

As I dove more into this particular artist’s work, my take of it shifted in a manner that I was able to notice. Usually, I am unable to observe this effect in action. Usually, I will look at an artist’s work years after I spent time with it and realize that I am able to appreciate it a lot more — or less, without there having been any shift in between. In the case of Arbus, I have noticed how I have become more and more skeptical of the work — even of the best photographs.

There probably are various factors that have contributed to this shift, such as the inevitable passage of time that has blunted the effect of Arbus’ work. I’m getting older, and repeated viewing has moved my reception of this (and other artists’) work from an immediate stage towards a more delayed, cerebral one. But I also read two books, An Emergency in Slow Motion by William Todd Schultz (a book that most photographers I spoke with absolutely hate) and the more recent Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer by Arthur Lubow (find a review here). Both books portray the artist as a deeply troubled person, a person whose moral compass might have been a bit off (to phrase this mildly).

Of course, background knowledge inevitably will make any person see an artist’s output in a different light. However, I typically attempt to see any piece of art in a way that ignores such knowledge. This is an impossible task; but I feel it’s one that is necessary. After all, if a deeply troubled person takes photographs in which there is no trace of such troubles, why should the background information enter the discussion? Should, in other words, something that cannot be traced in a photograph be used to evaluate the merit of the photograph? I don’t think so.

In Arbus’ case, this conundrum does not arise. I don’t mean this as a flippant statement, but I don’t think a genuinely happy and well adjusted person would have taken these photographs. I’m not a trained psychologist, so I’ll leave things at that.

Well, almost. At one of New York’s David Zwirner galleries, for six weeks Diane Arbus’ Untitled was on display. Being in the city for a short visit, I went to see it (along with a group of students). As the press release informs us, Zwirner and San Francisco’s Fraenkel gallery are now “co-representatives of The Estate of Diane Arbus.” The exhibition presented “the first complete presentation” of the work in question — 66 photographs, including “several images that have never before been exhibited”. About the work the press release notes that the photographs “were made at residences for people with developmental disabilities, places Arbus repeatedly returned to for picnics, for dances, and at Halloween between 1969 and 1971, the last years of her life.”

Of late, some of the larger galleries in New York have begun to produce exhibitions that rival museum ones. For example, the 2015 Picasso & The Camera exhibition at Gagosian vastly surpassed anything I’ve seen at MoMA in a long time (also admission was free). So somehow, I had this expectation that the Diane Arbus exhibition would be along those lines. Would you present an exhibition of photographs, some of them never seen before, all of them taken under circumstances that just lend themselves to all kinds of problems without any added organization in the form of text (wall labels etc.) and additional materials?

Well, I wouldn’t — but that’s what they did. No labels, nothing. Instead, things were presented just like any other Zwirner exhibition — a long row of photographs in frames. There was a note: “there is no photography allowed within the exhibition” — the Arbus Estate had not allowed Lubow to reproduce photographs in his biography, so there’s a pattern here.

But this is not why I’m not showing any photographs here. I’m not showing any photographs because the work in question, Untitled, is much too problematic for way too many reasons. I had a brief discussion with my students after they had seen the exhibition. A few of them looked genuinely shocked. How, one asked me, was this not othering the subjects? I didn’t have an answer, and I don’t have one now.

So a photographer goes to social events at “residences for people with developmental disabilities” and photographs the clearly very unsuspecting subjects in ways that at times find an almost perverse pleasure in what the camera can do to people. Diane Arbus obviously wasn’t/isn’t the only photographer to go about this game (for example, a new Bruce Gilden book just came out). But well into the second decade of the 21st Century, that ought to be the topic for some serious conversations.

Whether or not Diane Arbus was able to recognize the cruelty of her endeavour I don’t know. From what I have read, the answer is probably no. But we, as viewers, ought to react to the fact that that cruelty more often than not resulted in photographs that are cruel themselves. You wouldn’t know this from the press release. “The results are strangely lyrical,” it claims, “even tender, documenting a world possessed of its own rituals and codes of conduct that remain somehow mesmerizingly familiar.” Well no, the photographs aren’t strangely lyrical (unless both words don’t mean what I think they mean — entirely possible, after all English is only my second language), no, for sure most of them aren’t tender at all (some are outright brutal), and I don’t even want to dissect the rest of that statement — that would be too depressing.

In photography circles, discussions concerning exploitation are often swatted away as if they were merely flies bothering you. This is partly because of the macho cult in photography that I wrote about earlier this year. And of course, one could argue that all photography is exploitation. Given that there has been a vastly raised awareness of the power of photography in the general public — as, for example, street photographers know, I see a renewed need to have discussions about exploitation — certainly in circumstances where it is as blatant as in Arbus’ Untitled work.

What is more, all history, not just the photography one, is an ongoing, evolving process. It’s never written in stone — that would make it a form of ideology. I’ll leave it up to American photo historians to unpack the machismo at the heart of so much of what John Szarkowski was engaged in. And there are efforts going on to bring to light the many voices that so far have been silenced or ignored.

For these efforts to be truly valuable, though, we also have to engage in re-evaluating the photographers that have entered the canon. Such a re-evaluation includes the publication of biographies (there probably is a reason why the Arbus and Avedon estates were so unhappy about the recent biographies produced about these photographers). But the re-evaluation also needs to include discussing the photographs.

This re-evaluation does not mean withdrawing pictures and locking them up. In fact, Diane Arbus Untitled could have been a good exhibition if there had been an attempt at curation (here meaning an organization of the material in question) with plenty of added text: why do some pictures look so much more produced than others? Which ones were shown previously and (possibly) why? And most importantly: how can we properly deal with the gigantic moral dilemma that arises out of this particular photographer, an artist with an unrelenting cruel gaze, pointing her camera at people who not only have no idea what’s happening, but who also are some of the most vulnerable members of society? That, and only that, should be the approach to show these photographs.

After all, these cultural artifacts are not fully untethered from our times, yet. They weren’t dug up by archeologists, who now have to attempt to decipher their meanings. They come out of a specific context, they were initially promoted and discussed in a specific context, and they have now entered our context, a context which has made great strides towards achieving equality and respect for all of its members. Obviously, we’re not there, yet, and the Trumpian counter-movement has been demonstrating the hard work still ahead.

That hard work needs to be done by all of us. Specifically, photography’s cruel gaze needs to find its reckoning.