Managed to see the Arbus exhibition before it closes at Heide Museum. Went with dear friend Ang (Wylie), we started out doing photography in Year 9 together. Even though we knew the images, such as the boy in Central Park holding a toy hand grenade, it was interesting to see them again with older eyes. I was struck by how when I viewed these images as a photography student all I saw was Arbus as a voyeur, her images seemed exploitative. I saw no grey, just black and white. I found them to be disturbing. I didn’t get her.
“The thing that’s important to know is that you never know. You’re always sort of feeling your way.”
“Nothing is never the same as they said it was. It’s what I’ve never seen before that I recognise.”
1. PICTURE by STEPHEN FRANK from… Diane Arbus, An Aperture Monograph
2. Explanation of ‘the gap between intention and effect’ from the exhibition.
Seeing them with new eyes, I saw the empathy she saw in her subjects, not in all the images, but in many. I saw the incredible expressions she captured and how although they knew they were being photographed, they seemed so unself-conscious.. such a true representation of themselves. Or at least a true representation of human expression as seen in their faces. It was interesting seeing her work along side her contemporaries: Weegee, William Klein, Mary Ellen Mark, Walker Evans, Lisette Model, Lee Friedlander, William Eggleston, Garry Winogrand and Milton Rogovin. Ang and I could not help but see the contrast between Milton and Arbus’s work when it came to seeing the relationship between the photographer and the subject as viewed in the expression on the subjects face. In Miltons work, the subjects wore a mask, so aware of being photographed and appearing self-conscious. The resulting images in my eyes have less depth, less meaning. They make Arbus’s work so compelling in comparison. It’s this that is the takeaway for me. So much goes into making a portrait.. the light, the composition, the lens choice, what to leave in, what to leave out of the frame, then there’s the technical stuff to consider all the while also having an exchange with your subject. Experiencing the moment with them, engaging with them. The relationship between the subject and the photographer is what makes Arbus’s work so compelling and it’s such a great reminder to not settle for the expression on the subjects face where they’re still guarded or holding back. Because it’s the expression combined with body language of a subject that teaches us about the human condition and is what gives the photograph its strength and longevity.
The most disturbing image was that of siamese twins inside a jar in a carnival tent. Like that you’d see in an anatomy museum. It felt so claustrophobic and so wrong to be viewing these dead babies. They should be shown respect and given love and care in death, not put on display. The world has changed thank goodness. I feel I also have taken images like this at the Melbourne University anatomy faculty many moons ago. It’s interesting that that image is not in The Arbus Aperture monograph. Was that a decision made in 1971 when the book came out?
It was delicious seeing black and white prints shot on film with a 6X6 camera too.. I do love the square format. It was fascinating watching Ang’s reaction to some of Arbus’s printing too. Ang was a very talented printer when she worked in The Age’s darkroom. I was never good at printing. And I have to say I don’t miss it. But I certainly felt nostalgic for it yesterday when all the flaws in Arbus’s prints were on show.. as the blurb on the wall explained, we can see that she’s been here, we can see her touch. Modern photography where we download straight to software like Lightroom takes a lot of the personality and individuality out of the resulting image. Eggelston’s prints in this exhibition truly stand out, they’re exquisite.
Not all about her style of engaging her subjects sits confortably with me although I have a whole new appreciation for her work.. but on this I agree wholeheartedly…
“My favourite thing is to go where I’ve never been.”
The exhibition closes at Heide today and heads to the Art Gallery of South Australia, opening on July 16th till Sept 30th.