Monday, 7 March 2011

Diane Arbus - Exhibition

Exhibition - Art Gallery Aberdeen

Whilst on  a visit to Aberdeen this week I went to see the Diane Arbus Photography exhibition in the Artists Rooms at the Aberdeen Art Gallery. The Artists Rooms are jointly owned by Tate and National Galleries of Scotland and this exhibition has a broad selection of her work, mainly from the 1960's.

Many of the images shown at the exhibition can be view here. Signature images from her life's work included in the exhibition are Twins, Child with a toy grenade in Central Park, NYC 1962, and A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y.1970.

The body of work at the exhibition is fabulous but I was disappointed with the lack of information on her personal life or how she became such a well respected and influential artist. So I have come home with a taste to find out more and done a little research which I will share here as who she became as an artist is inextricably linked to who she was as a person. 

Diane Arbus (pronounced Dee-Ann) was born in 1923 and sadly committed suicide in 1971. She is regarded, in just about everything I have read, as one of the most original and influential American photographers of the 20th Century. 

Her parents were hardworking Jewish immigrants and her father managed a fur store in Fifth Avenue, New York and they lived on Park Avenue. Diane herself is quoted as saying in interviews that she had a privileged upbringing. 

At 18 Diane married Allan Arbus (who went on to be an actor in M.A.S.H - yes really...) and he was already a photographer. They supported their family by being fashion photographers. Diane did the styling and Allan took the photographs. It was her husband who bought Diane her first camera and in 1956 they had their first photo included in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. I say their because they always took joint credit for the images. By the 1960's Diane had moved away from fashion photography into portraiture and was beginning to develop her own distinct look. Her images, always square, became more artistic and were rather unorthodox for portraits. Apparently she would spend hours even days with people until they dropped their guard and became more relaxed with her. Many of her professional portraits were published by Esquire and Harper's Bazaar.

It was during this time that her own private collection of images was developing and the portraits of people in the streets and those "on the fringes of society" were taken. Many of the images show circus performers, what she calls "midgets" and "retards" again her words not mine and transvestites. It is mainly these images that make up the exhibition.

The photographs are beautifully taken. There is definitely a distinct style to her work which is a cross between documentary and portraiture. 

 I'm sure that in 1960's America there would have been nothing shocking in the images or the image titles but in the 2010's use of words like "retard"  in a title is outside of what is now morally acceptable. I can't help feeling as I wandered around the exhibition that this is clouding my opinion of the images. Were the images originally intended to shock or just show the normally unseen? Whichever it was I bet the titles themselves would have been unremarkable in the 60's.

As far as the images of physically and mentally disabled people are concerned do we even have the right to take these pictures? Who gives consent for the people unable to do so themselves? The "normal" person? What's normal? Is it because these people are rarely seen that they are regarded as different?

Should we just accept that these are "record shots" of the unusual people that Diane Arbus would actively seek out to be different or is there a deeper meaning coming from her own personality in that she didn't regard herself as "normal".  Suffering from depression she had her own unseen affliction and is said to have missed the attention of her parents as a child because they were working hard at being successful.

This is a very thought provoking exhibition which shows a comprehensive range of Diane Arbus images. If you get a chance I would highly recommend it. I'm sure I will be returning to her work again.

1 comment:

  1. Aberdeen Art Gallery! I have very happy memories of time spent there years ago (I went to Aberdeen Uni).

    I can't decide what I think about Diane Arbus. Her work is very powerful but as you say it raises some disturbing questions. Thank you for sharing this.