Facing Scrutiny--Facing West
The more you get to know Diane Arbus' photographs, the more she intrigues, writes Philippa Hawker on the eve of a Jewish Museum exhibition.
Diane Arbus' images test our understanding of the limits of photography. . . .
~ ~ Mae West ~ ~
Some of the images in the Jewish Museum exhibition were commissioned by magazines: they could be celebrity portraits, images to accompany stories on American life, or the photographer's own projects. In 1965, Arbus spent two days with the septuagenarian star Mae West, and wrote a piece for Show Magazine to accompany the images: she described Mae as "imperious, adorable, magnanimous, genteel and girlish, almost simultaneously. There is even, forgive me, a kind of innocence about her."
But the photographs are more pitiless than the prose: they shed a harsh, revealing light on their subject. West hated them, and threatened to sue.
Her portraits often seem to be collaborations, images created with the participation and consent of those she photographed. Yet they contain something that is both more and less than their subjects might think they are revealing: they seem to show the gap between how a person sees themselves and how they might appear to others. There is empathy and there is distance, intimacy and a kind of pitiless scrutiny.
Arbus, who had a sharp, pithy prose style, often supplied lines that could be used by critics either to justify or condemn her. A monograph with the twins on its cover, published after her suicide in 1971, included pages of Arbus utterances and observations about photography that have an offhand yet aphoristic force. They suggest, sometimes misleadingly, things about her work and her approach.
Diane Arbus owned up to manipulation in taking her pictures: she acknowledged the access that a camera gave her, the power it conferred on her, the mystery and intractability of some aspects of her art. She said things that have continued to haunt the way her work is reviewed and understood. Things such as:
"A photograph is a secret about a secret."
"You see people on the street and what you notice about them is the flaw."
"We've all got an identity. You can't avoid it. It's what is left when youtake everything else away."
"I work from awkwardness. By that Imean I don't like to arrange things. If I stand in front of something, instead of arranging it, I arrange myself." . . .
. . .
The Photographs of Diane Arbus is at the Jewish Museum, 26 Alma Road, St Kilda from July 12 to August 28. On July 17 at 7.30pm, there will be special program that includes a guided tour and a discussion by a psychiatrist about responses to difference. Bookings: 9534 0083
- - excerpt from an article printed in Australia - -
By Philippa Hawker
July 6, 2005
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