One of the more unpretentious things seen in recent days involved a pair of young girls and a pair of Buddhist monks. The young girls approached the monks and asked for a photo thinking it would be hilarious and good internet coverage. The monks duly posed under their umbrellas (there was rain in Green Park) with one of the youngsters, not realising they were to function like a wacky bracelet. But then the monks asked for the same photo on their camera, which would have been a subtle social power move, like “you can be a bracelet as well”, if it were not Buddhist monks that were asking. The girls were slightly taken aback by this. And so the same photograph was taken twice- a girl between two Buddhist monks carrying umbrellas: one about the narcissism of a young girl trying to find a megaphone for herself; the other about a sympathetic meeting of three people in an instant of time.
Over her career, Diane Arbus gained renown for a series of striking images, but beginning from her posthumous 1972 retrospective at MOMA, New York, (Arbus committed suicide in 1971) the increased critical attention has been divided into two camps: those who see Arbus as one of the young girls, and those who see Arbus as one of the Buddhist monks. And so the “value” of Arbus’ work turns on whether she is (in her own fearing words) just a “photographer of freaks”, and with what kind of humanity she treats these “freaks”.
To a certain almost logical extent, these photographs are self-aggrandising. There would be no photograph without the myriad curiosities and odd situations that Arbus records. The late 50s/early 60s series featuring N.Y.C. female impersonators, or “Dominatrix embracing her client, N.Y.C.” (1970) reach out to a kind of pure voyeuristic fascination that is now provided for by things like street-fashion do’s/don’ts (featuring photographs of anyone taken on the street) or Jeremy Kyle. If this exhibition Affinities is meant to discuss bonds and ties, these photographs give far too much bohemian kudos to Arbus as a kind of arbitrator and “explorer”. The feel is very much “I have been out there, and now I bring these strange fruits back to you at home”. “My favorite thing is to go where I’ve never been,” she said once.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with exploration, certainly not. There is, however, a problem with making (and perhaps marketing) yourself as the sole and grandiose conduit for other people’s look at your discovery. Her photos of female impersonators, dominatrixes, or three “Russian midget friends in a living room on 100th street, N.Y.C.” (1963) feel like we are looking at Diane Arbus looking at them, which removes them from us. Perhaps we try to feel sympathy for them, wish them well, but we cannot see them because Arbus’ photograph is in the way. This, in the same way that Dürer’s woodcut of a rhinoceros got in the way of rhinoceroses for hundreds of years, and still lets us call rhinoceroses “armoured” like a knight- it was drawn at a remove from view of a rhinoceros and generated more descriptions at a remove from any real rhinoceroses, so uninformative exoticism reigned. The Buddhist monks in photo #1 are hidden in a similar way, and are hidden because the photo is being taken with the flashy bohemianism of the photographer in mind.
The Timothy Taylor exhibition seems to try to counter this weakness (or criticism) by laying such strong store on “affinity”, as well as breaking up slightly the order of the photographs so as not to have too many “freaks” appear in a row. Timothy Taylor always do a good job for the work, and this time the walls are painted a warm grey to compliment and reinforce the crisp grayscale of the photographs covering an allegedly varied range of interests. “Every difference is a Likeness too,” Arbus claimed once- she is wrong of course, but the warmth of the gallery occasionally lulls you into thinking that you have access to the subjects of Arbus’ photos- most of which are developed having a kind of homely, unglamorous tone. It is being suggested that “even though we are different, we’re all the same, right?” We might all have the same fears, and we all look different? Maybe that’s it?
I didn’t buy this particular line, but certain photographs are successful in avoiding annoying kookiness. Arbus is at her best when she manages to make her eyes our eyes- when we feel like we are looking directly at the subject, without the sense that she has carted the negative back over land and sea. “Two ladies at the automat, N.Y.C.” (1966) look exactly like they are about to patronise you, and “A blind couple in their bedroom, Queens” (1967) has a haunting muteness about it that you consciously do not want to disturb, before remembering that this scene was in 1967 in New York, and there is no way you could disturb it.
This type of engagement is what the Buddhist monks had, and is where Arbus triumphs. She has an ability to catch people in a moment that implies future moments, and invites you to fill in past ones. Sometimes you are not being told a story of distant lands, you are there looking at them, and I think this is what occasionally sets Arbus apart and allows for some human compassion for, or interaction with, her subjects on the part of the viewer.
Occasionally you can speak to them, and as time heads further away from the 60s this element of Arbus’ work proves to be her saving grace. If we look at photos by Julian Wasser- both he and Arbus were working at the same period- we have a totally different feeling towards the content. Wasser’s photographs are nostalgia-making (nostalgia for a time where I wasn’t)- they are of people smiling in their prime, or looking sultry in their prime, with everything exciting happening around them that has since ceased. There is nothing like this in Arbus’ photos. Her 1960s is just “what was there”, no greatness, no prime, just, occasionally, “here is a human being”. We don’t see “the swingin’ sixties” or anything like that, we don’t see any of the idealised stuff of Wasser, we get a real, humane connection in which the time difference is accidental and unimportant. “Freaks” or not, there can be affinity with that, just so long as she doesn’t make a huge deal of herself as an exporter of exotic cargo, like Francis Drake or two girls in Green Park.
Words by Jack Castle © Artlyst 2012 **** 4 Stars
Photo: © Estate of Diane Arbus Two female impersonators backstage, N.Y.C. 1962
Timothy Taylor Gallery, 23 June – 17 August 2012