Diane Arbus was a photographer who snapped her subjects without knowing their names. She titled them with captions like “Russian Midgets,” “Mexican Dwarf,” “Young Man,” or “Child Doll.” With her images of disturbingly nonchalant dominatrix, masked women, and many subjects characterized by the human everyday experiences of ugliness , Arbus created a collection of what she was known to refer to as “freaks.”
“Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot. It was one of the first things I photographed and it had a terrific kind of excitement for me…they make me feel a mixture of shame and awe” – Diane Arbus
Germaine Greer, a subject of Diane Arbus’ photography and well-known writer and model for Life Magazine, portrays Arbus in an article written for the Guardian as an uncaring artist determined not to let her subjects look good. She was a meek and fragile woman who was ruthless behind lens–exposing her subjects for the stereotypes they broadcast with appearances. As was discussed in our conversation about obesity, Diane Arbus uncomfortably exposes the nature of our bodies as “silent confessors.” Through a medium often mistakingly interpreted as one of “truth,” she uses photography to dare us to confront the way we interpret what we see. As Greer concludes, “Arbus is not an artist who makes us see the world anew; she embeds us in our own limitations, our lack of empathy, our kneejerk reactions, our incuriosity and lack of concern. Hers is a world without horizons where there is no escape from the self.” Gazing at Arbus’ in-your-face depiction of “freaks,” we shift in our seats and our palms sweat. We realize that the language thought to belong to a century of less empathetic freakshow-going members of society still lives within our own heads. We look at the imperfections captured by the unforgiving lens of the camera, and we see something uncomfortably real.
And yet, Diane Arbus staged her subjects just as deliberately as any of the photographers who shoot bright magazine cover models–repositioning limbs for desired effect. She was known to stand and watch them for hours–capturing the moments of human discomfort. Instead of shooting the impromptu beautiful moment of a baby’s laughter, she aimed her camera up its nose and captured its snot-filled tantrum. Her photographs were very much framed.
Throughout history, we have trusted photography as a sort of science. We are convinced that something made by a machine is to be trusted. As Terry Barrett points out in his piece “Criticizing Photographs” (2006) we believe photographs. For example, Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine’s famous photographs were staged with the intention of causing social reform and pointing out despicable conditions. This is true too with disturbing images like those that surfaced from Abu Gharib, the death camps of the holocaust, and even the streaming fly-covered faces of children that are familiar accompaniments to on screen pleas from Unicef during commercial breaks. Does the purpose behind these photographs make them less real? There is perspective behind every click of the lens– a detail we are often too quick to forget.
Furthermore, the discourse and literal written language that accompanies a photograph can completely change its meaning. Diane Arbus’ captions intrigued with their ambiguity–making her subjects into blank canvases for the viewer’s interpretation and discomfort. The caption that accompanies a photograph can often be more controversial than the photograph itself (perhaps partly because photos are often thought of speaking for themselves… putting any words with them feels like coercion.) In an example of this controversy, we might look at Subhankar Banerjee–a photographer whose images of the Arctic were not particularly unique, but whose accompanying captions caused them to be removed from an exhibit in the Smithsonian museum. We are afraid of being told what to think. We do not realize that in every image we see (including the over 3,000 advertisements we are exposed to daily) we are being subtly controlled.
When we recognize this control, we might ask the question that Barrett begs throughout his article: Are photographs moral?
In a society where a doctored and staged photograph of a celebrity might fetch upwards of $50,000, the features of models are doctored with airbrushing techniques to paint unrealistic expectations of beauty, and photographers and videographers are paid to travel the world looking for monstrosities to capture for the 5:00 news, how is our perception of the world skewed? In a digital age, is there really a medium of “truth” anymore?
Diane Arbus’ photography hits us hard because it is uncanny. It is familiar and strange at the same time–leaving us uneasy as we find ourselves identifying with subjects who have been classified by society as “different” and excluded from the mainstream. We do not want to be confronted with our own stigmatized and compartmentalized minds. We prefer to be fed images of altered truths passed as facts. Though Arbus’ images are deceptively simple in black and white, they are far more complex when interpreted. We have to read her daguerrotype-style darkened frames in order to see them.
Arbus offers almost no explanation for her work. She leaves us to uncover its hidden meaning. But I still wonder: is there really any extra meaning behind it? Or was she just photographing “freaks?” Was she fascinated simply by our everyday attempts to cover up ugliness–opting to stage it to shake things up? Was she isolating the abnormal in her extreme depictions, or was she normalizing them by making us question if we can identify with them at all (and inevitably answering yes…?) Should we look at Arbus’ work in a feminist or postmodern or liberation discourse, or should we take it at “face value”–as so much photography is? Where is the voice in all of this? Does there need to be one at all for it to be significant? Does someone need to write an impressive thesis or a book or a speech in order to give these pictures meaning?
I’m going to stare at the Arbus_Photos of the Triplets, the Naked Man and the Puerto Rican and wonder. Maybe they’ll speak to me. Who knows?