Diane Arbus: As if they were reading – FINISHED!!

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Reviewed on 10/18/2011 | No Reviews

Some considered the American photographer as humanist, others saw in her a simple voyeur. If you haven’t made up your mind about Diane Arbus yet, go and see the extraordinary exhibition at the Jeu de Paume, the first retrospective ever held in France.

Like a stain

Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962 © The estate of Diane Arbus

When Diane Arbus was asked for a brief statement about photographs, she replied: “They are the proof that something was there and no longer is. Like a stain. And the stillness of them is boggling. You can turn away but when you come back they’ll still be there looking at you.”

Indeed, they are all there, looking at you: the lost creatures, freaks, transvestites, twins, the couples, children, carnival performers, mentally handicapped, the nudists, middle-class families, zealots, eccentrics, and outcasts. Arbus is showing them in their fragility, their weakness, their vulnerability and struggle. And there are no better words than her own to describe the troubling presence of her photos. They are all carrying that human stain.

The ugly and the lost ones

200 photographs are on display at this retrospective, a lot of her iconic pictures, but also some you’ve probably not seen before like the portrait of Jorges Luis Borges in Central Park or the one of Susan Sontag sitting on her bed. But celebrities are not exactly what interested her. Arbus was fascinated by the margins of society, by the outcasts. She loved the unusual, the ugly, and the lost.

Born into a wealthy family in New York, Arbus married her husband Allan against the will of her parents when she was 18. They two had two daughters and ran a fashion photography agency together until 1959, when Diane began working on independent projects. But after the professional split followed the personal one. In 1961, she published her first reportage, The vertical journey, in Esquire. ‘I always felt that it was our separation that made her a photographer,” her ex-husband Allan said later. ”I couldn’t have stood for her going to the places she did. She’d go to bars on the Bowery and to people’s houses. I would have been horrified.”

Giants and dwarfs

A young man in curlers at home on West 20th Street, N.Y.C. 1966© The Estate of Diane Arbus

But more important than the divorce was the influence of her teacher, Lisette Model, who made Arbus an artist: she “finally made it clear to me that the more specific your are, the more general it’ll be.”

The result of this realization? Showing the human condition, the most general, in the strangest, odd and apparently devious. Arbus showed men dressing like women, young girls who looked like men, giants and dwarfs. But as original and different all those people might seem, they have something in common: their gaze. The people Arbus photographed are not looking directly into the camera, but you though often have the impression that they are looking at you. And they all seem to want to tell you their story.

A voyeurist?

Look at them, and you have the impression of looking into the portrait of America. Of course, it’s not the way America wanted to see itself. And there is not what you could call compassion in Arbus’ work. But that’s what gives the power to those pictures. Would you call her a cold voyeurist therefore? Definitely not.

Unlike many photographers of that period, Arbus wanted to meet and to know her subjects. Look at the famous portrait of Eddi Carlem, who was known as the „World’s Biggest Cowboy“ and later the Jewish Giant. It took her ten years to take the picture entitled “Jewish Giant at Home with his Parents in the Bronx”. Arbus, somehow, became the medium for a lot of people.

The boggling stillness

Arbus committed suicide at the age of 48. Probably she had just seen too much. And too deeply. She had looked in the souls of those she had photographed. Hence the boggling stillness.

Shortly before her death, Arbus was honoured with an exhibition of her work in the Museum of Modern Art. “It’s so beautiful”, she noted about her photographs, “all in a splendid room and people stare in the them, hundreds of strangers, as if they were reading.”

Diane Arbus
Jeu de Paume – from 8 October 2011- 5 Feburary 2012
1, Place de la Concorde
75008 Paris
Tel. +33(0)1 47 03 12 50
Métro: Concorde 
Open Tuesday from 12h – 21h, from Wednesday to Friday 12h – 19h, Saturday and Sunday 10h – 19h
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