Published in Create To Inspire, 08 January 2014
Rejecting conventional aesthetics in a raw and unsentimental manner, “straight” photography emerged in the 1930s as a counter movement to pictorialism. Vacillating between fine art and photojournalism, these new images sought to provide an analytical and descriptive look at social landscapes. The movement came to its full maturation in the 1950s when it was met with commercial success. It is within this framework that Diane Arbus (1923-1971) and her eerie portraits of the real rose to prominence. Discarding the niceties of fine art and fashion photography, her images championed fact over fiction, as her subjects took center stage.
Instantly recognizable through their consciously un-artistic modality, Arbus’ pictures echo a defined set of aesthetic cues. Often set in New York City, the depicted scene embodies the look of a film noir – a stylistic earmark of the New York School of Photography. While her photographs borrow elements of romanticism, they reject the sublimity commonly associated with the movement. Hence, her subjects, habitually placed in the center of the frame, are stripped of embellishments and treated objectively. Transcending their role as model, they inform Arbus’ perception and vision. The relationship that develops between the photographer, subject and viewer becomes an intrinsic part of her work.
Depicting those who, either by birth or by choice, lived within the seams of polite society, Arbus allowed ugliness, deviation and flaw to enter the realm of fine art photography. While each model’s visual distinctiveness permeates the image’s square frame, the most compelling aspect of her pictures is not the subjects themselves but rather their undeviating gaze that hints at a relaxed acceptance of one’s own individuality. Delicately revealing what society had been taught to turn its back on, Arbus’ body of work encouraged more than vicarious tourism into these people’s lives. Presenting viewers with a portal into another world, her photographs provoked a visual experience, as they ultimately acted as an assault on the polite, habitual blindness that was/is so prevalent in society.
Arbus’ contribution as a photographer did not solely rest in her choice of subjects. Rejecting the anecdotal descriptiveness of sensationalistic photojournalism, she challenged the presumed objectivity of the documentary by photographing the rituals of everyday life. Hence, while the reality represented is far removed from our own, it is at the same time hauntingly familiar and in no end stranger than ours. To redouble and rephrase, the subjects appear as characters of alienation. Yet, they hold up a mirror, prompting the beholder to investigate his own humanity. Destabilizing our concept of reality, Arbus documented a marginalized world rarely depicted – a world distinct from our own, it comes to almost represent the dreamlike for the common viewer.
Greatly contributing to the history of photography, Arbus’ work is widely viewed as a phenomenon that changed the medium. She militated against the formal concepts of beauty, breaching the boundaries of what was acceptable, mostly through her choice of subject matter. Her main preoccupation was to expose a truth: “Photographs are the proof that something was there and no longer is. You can turn away but when you come back they’ll still be there looking at you.” (Geoff Dyers). For her, a photograph was a medium which could communicate and render a candid and fleeting reality.