Instructor’s Name: Kate Schneider
Course Title: Photography and Digital
Dissecting Arbus To call yourself a freak without irony but ware the label while basking in the glow of wining live’s simple war ,the lottery of the disenfranchised : This I feel was the overarching statement behind Diane Arbus’s frenetic and grotesquely honest images of the New York’s social growing pains of the fifties and sixties. Her work is often categorized by a urge to uncover the taboo in everyday life ,insisting her overt representation of counterculture stand for more then strict voyeuristic mockery She wanted to destroy the idea of hierarchy and “otherness” in art. The range of work in Arbus’s portfolio sometimes hovers in that particular gray area between touching and accessible ,going to cruelly framed reality without the warning guise of attachment. Weather the intent of any one shot leaves the viewer cold or broadens our understanding ,there is no denying that even nearly forty years after her death these pictures maintain a strange power to draw our focus to the emotions not always seen. Undoubtedly shared universally, regardless of class status - I can only hope that my photographs one day have same effect. Diane Arbus’s childhood was sent against the backdrop of Great Depression and yet she only had a vague sense of the gravity of these events. It was the resentment of her sheltered scope that caused her abandon her commercial jobs the mid fifties1. But it is her work that began in nineteen sixty two ,when Diane studied with model Lisette Model and adopted the 2 1/4 inch camera that she began to make the square portrait the defined her most successful decade. Arbus’s subjects now became things forced her to comfort the humanity in unsettling ways. Among them were transvestites and also the deformed ,poised in candid setups that turned them into laboratory specimens under a microscope while still keeping the balance of dignity alive.
One of my favorites of this set is of Eddie Carmel, the Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx,NY (1970). As marked by Ann Millett in her piece “ Exceeding the Frame: The Photography of Diane Arbus” ,many disability advocates have issues with this picture due to the feeling that “ A desire to view the photograph – to stare at Carmel – engages the association of looking at cripples and auto wrecks. Carmel, common to many of his stature or condition, was indeed impaired by his excessive and relentless physical growth – the cane in the image eventually became two and then a wheelchair, followed by Carmel's death. Yet Carmel is also "crippled," or "disabled," in the photograph by definition of disability as a socially-constructed, oppressed identity; he is made into an abnormal "Other" by environments, architectures, and social attitudes that exclude and reject him, seen here in the form of his living room and the disconcerted family with whom he shares it”2 To me this comment is over simplifying a larger conversation and demeaning Arbus’s cultural impact all in the same breath. The strength this image for me is that :Yes ,it manages to play on archetypal notion what is normal (in this case case the idea that all Jewish boys want to be tall) and turns Eddie’s large stature into thoughtfully pointed spotlight on the outdated notions of what makes the American family. It shows that the Carmal’s love their their son as any other family might and if onlooker are so stuck on Eddie’s size that this goes unseen ,then that an internal reflection on then rather then the photo. The mastery behind Arbus’s visuals is being able to acknowledge the joke in daily tragedies and move beyond it, to create a symbol of something greater that dares us to engage.
As Leo Rubinfien state in his 2005 retrospective article “Where Arbus Went” “A single Arbus photograph will finger delicately the ticking moments of a fantastic encounter in a room that never sees sunlight, and will also…