Diane Arbus Untitled @David Zwirner

JTF (just the facts): A total of 66 black and white photographs, framed in white and matted, and hung against white walls in a series of three connected gallery spaces. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1970 and 1971. 6 of the prints were made by the artist in the early 1970s, while the remaining 60 prints were made posthumously by Neil Selkirk. Physical sizes range between roughly 14×14 and 16×16 inches, and no edition information was provided on the checklist. (Since no photography was allowed in the galleries, the installation shots below are courtesy of the David Zwirner website.)

Monographs of this body of work were published by Aperture in 1995, and again in 2011.

Comments/Context: If there is one common thread that connects a major swath of the history of portrait photography, it is the challenge of finding a way to get a sitter to be natural – to stop posing, to let his or her guard down, and to let us see the “real” person behind the instinctive performance for the camera that occurs. And even though photographers from across the decades have come up with increasingly ingenious approaches to achieving this goal, the struggle never ceases – we as people seemingly never want to relinquish control of our identity without some level of resistance.

When faced with this very same artistic problem early in her career, Diane Arbus didn’t respond to the challenge with tricks or contrived situations. Instead, she opted for something more risky and dangerous – unvarnished personal honesty. She approached her sitters with active empathy and engagement, and selected subjects who lay at the margins and edges of society, those who may not have typically experienced the kind of intense non-judgemental attention that came with Arbus’ penetrating gaze. She made the exchange open, and often gave of herself as much as she asked of her sitters. And her results were like nothing that had come before, or since.

In what we would later understand as near the end of Arbus’ life (she committed suicide in 1971), she spent time making pictures at various New Jersey residences for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. These were people who didn’t have the same ingrained social inhibitions as her usual subjects, thereby giving them an unquestioned authenticity, but they also had a delicate vulnerability, which forced Arbus to proceed with caution. At the time, such images seemed to follow along as a logical extension to the kinds of people she had previously been interested in photographing. Many of her most successful pictures had been rooted in a search for the unseen, and for the elemental truth that could be coaxed forth when strong, trust-based connections could be made to those outside the social mainstream. So between 1969 and 1971, Arbus visited these institutions repeatedly, often just in time for Halloween, Easter, or some other celebration or parade. She became known to the residents, and that comfort led them to stand for her in their handmade costumes, paper bag masks, and church-going finery. The series consisted of a total of 66 images, exhibited here in their entirety for the first time.

Before we can even begin to grapple with the subtleties of the aesthetics and emotions captured in Arbus’ photographs, we are forced to come to a resolution about where we stand on the issue of consent. I think it is safe to say that Arbus would never be allowed to be make these same pictures today, and so from our contemporary standpoint, it might be easy to conclude (or judge) that some level of exploitation took place.

Many notable photographers and photojournalists have made sensitive and compassionate photographs at institutions and psychiatric wards of various kinds around the world, and for the most part, their pictures have served as documentation of the grimness to be found there, from cages and overcrowded rooms to more human images of patients struggling mightily with the mental and physical challenges that they face.

In Arbus’ case, while in many of her images, there is a sense of eye-to-eye connection and recognition between artist and sitter that seems plausibly mutual, in other instances, the sitter is clearly distracted, unaware, lost in thought, or unable to fully understand what is going on, so it is hard to say with any kind of confidence that the sitter willingly gave his or her consent to be photographed or fully understood the consequences of what that decision meant. What is clear is that Arbus made much more than a good faith effort to connect, and that in general, we can see the results of that shared experience, however tenuous or fleeting it might have been. But in hindsight, does that exempt her from these thorny and unsettling questions of mismatched control between artist and sitter? I’m not sure it does, regardless of her best intentions or the entrancing power of the resulting images.

The images in this series that most notably fail the test of engaged consent are the few flash-lit images Arbus made indoors, particularly in common rooms. There are only a handful of these, but they capture multiple residents gathered together in largely vacant but confined spaces. In these troubling scenes, the patients are alone together, each one locked into his or her own interior world, each seemingly oblivious to the eye rolling, floor tumbling, or slacked out sleep taking place nearby. The pictures are quietly harrowing, “taken” in ways that veer away from the portraiture of mutual exchange.

But when Arbus went outside and photographed the residents in the open air, on the expansive grassy park spaces nearby, the entire mood of the project was transformed. Not only was the connection between artist and sitter much more observable, the freedom of the broad sky and empty space clearly made the residents feel more comfortable. While the holiday outings and special occasions likely added to the overall positivity, many of the pictures capture glimmers of unguarded innocent joy (critic Hilton Als has called the pictures “ecstatic”), where smiles, laughter, joking, parading, and playacting come together in exuberant openness. There are genuine arm in arm smiles, pairs in off kilter lipstick and funny hats, gleeful almost somersaults, and plenty of unvarnished, unposed, real companionship between the residents.

But the most powerful pictures in this series come when the smiles fade for just a moment, or expressions are hidden behind makeshift masks and costumes. Here Arbus finds an edge of uneasy disoriented dissonance, where masks tilt toward the strange and we can’t quite know what is in the minds of the subjects. Slightly unbalanced compositions (where figures crowd to one side or the other), creeping darkness created by the outdoor flash, and hollow, almost unfinished facial expressions combine to push the pictures toward an unnerving alternate reality. Hands clutch at nearby friends for silent support, figures stand alone in wide isolating space, and more pervasive blank anxiety settles in. Some of the spookiest images occur when Arbus’ technical control breaks down just a bit, causing a blur when the sitters move; in these works, we can almost see thoughts flying off, or interior distractions made physical, where the openness of the subjects exposes their demons. It is in these pictures that a normally jaunty clown mask, a swimsuit, or a hat pulled down too tightly becomes depressingly surreal, the elevating momentary joy brought back to Earth. It might have been fun for the residents to play someone else for an afternoon, but that fantasy chillingly evaporates as the sun starts to set.

While this exhibit displays all 66 images shot during this period of Arbus’ work, I doubt she would have ever exhibited them in this way, even though she was enthusiastic about her results at the time. For scholars, the completeness here is instructive, but for most visitors, there are too many similar variants and almost duplicates – as a result, the show feels flabby and in need of a tighter edit. I would hope (and expect) that had Arbus been alive, she would have narrowed the full complement down to 25 or 30 images to refine and anneal the intense power that the best of the photographs hold.

In the end, Arbus defeated the usual portraiture blockades by choosing a specific group of sitters who at least partially lacked the capability to defend themselves. Her images undeniably offer a window into a set of human truths that are normally hidden (in seemingly equal measures encouraging and discouraging), but in my mind, there are no easy congratulations to be found here. Arbus approached her subjects with admirable dignity, tenderness, and respect, and certainly came away with a selection of indelible images. How we ultimately view the fairness and validity of her process is however in part a question of how much agency, self-awareness, and reciprocal engagement we attribute to her sitters, and how much protection we feel is required for those among us that are the most helpless and easily hurt.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are being sold as a complete set (POR), with some individual prints priced between $8000 and $32000. Arbus’ prints are ubiquitous at in the secondary markets, both in the photography and contemporary art sales. Recent prices have ranged from roughly $5000 (lesser known images/posthumous prints) to nearly $800000 (vintage icons). The Arbus estate is now co-managed by David Zwirner and Fraenkel Gallery (here).

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Read more about: Diane Arbus, David Zwirner

One comment

  1. Pete /

    Certainly exploitative but I think of this as Arbus’ late and probably most important series. As for assessing (or re-assessing) her position on the empathy scale in photography (for what it’s worth), it is perhaps worth reading a subject’s account:
    Terrific account, not that I entirely trust Greer to have been quite fair. In fact her oft-repeated resentment towards Arbus seems to me to come from a place of envy, (or else PTSD from their encounter).
    As for anyone else tackling a delicate subject and somehow managing to make serious pictures, I think photographer Richard Ansett did well with his 2013 fractured states series

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