Victoria and Albert Museum, London
13 October 2005-15 January 2006
Today, over 30 years later, quite a different retrospective of Arbus's work is on view at the V&A. Rather then the introduction of a body of works, 'Diane Arbus: Revelations' strives to explore the character of the photographer as well. In addition to the display of nearly 200 photographs, the exhibition includes three 'libraries' that chronicle Arbus's career through diary entries, private postcards, contact sheets, award letters, lists of accomplishments and old cameras. In many ways these rooms serve as a response to the criticism surrounding Arbus's aggressive approach to sensitive subjects. In displaying her journals and her letters, the curators have similarly exposed Arbus's own abnormalities and idiosyncrasies through highlighting her insecurities.
Although these notebook pages and family pictures appear carefully selected and placed, the curation of the actual photographs seems arbitrary and artless. The possibility for interaction between the prints appears strangely unaccounted for; in room after room, the photographs begin to blend together, blurring the unique qualities of the individuals depicted. Her photographs reveal an almost obsessive dedication to capturing the people who existed on the fringe of society and to exposing those who succeeded within in it. The intensity in the sheer volume of stylistically similar works shows her success in achieving her most famous goal: 'I would like to photograph everybody.'1 In capturing individuality and concealed identity, Arbus approached every subject with the same format in a similar manner. Thus, the show reveals that as she explored, and perhaps exploited, their differences, she also treated them equally.
In 1972, Arbus was credited as being 'one of those rare figures ... who suddenly, by a daring leap into a territory formerly regarded as forbidden, altered the terms of the art she practiced.'2Yet it is for these same reasons that her motives and approach are constantly questioned. Raising issues about Arbus's responsibility to her subjects, Susan Sontag asked about the moment after the button has been pushed:
Far from spying on freaks and pariahs, catching them unawares, the photographer has gotten to know them, reassured them - so that they posed for her calmly and stiffly ... A large part of the mystery of Arbus's photographs lies in what they suggest about how her subjects felt after consenting to be photographed. Do they see themselves, the viewer wonders, like that? Do they know how grotesque they are? It seems as if they don't.3Although Arbus presents herself in these presumably honest terms, in exposing truth through portraits of individuals, the artifice in her production further confirms the status of photography as art. The experience of being photographed by Arbus was far from natural and comfortable as described in a recent article in The Guardian by Germaine Greer. Here, Greer critically details a 1972 photo shoot with Arbus, illustrating the the aggressive nature of the photographer:
1. This statement appeared on the margin of a letter from Diane Arbus to her friend, Marvin Israel. Sussman E, Arbus D. A Chronology. In: Diane Arbus: Revelations. London: Jonathan Cape, 2003: 145.
2. Kramer H. From Fashion to Freaks. The New York Times. 5 November, 1972.
3. Sontag S. On Photography. London: Penguin Books, 1977: 36.
4. Greer G. Wrestling with Diane Arbus. The Guardian, 8 October, 2005.
5. Phillips, SS. The Question of Belief. In: Diane Arbus: Revelations. London: Jonathan Cape, 2003: 50.