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For those who missed Arbus

2 October 10 words: Thomas Norton
If you missed the recent Diane Arbus exhibition at the Nottingham Contemporary then here's a quick catch-up on what was on show
Brian Dillon discussing Diane Arbus - photo by Thomas Norton
Brian Dillon discussing Diane Arbus - photo by Thomas Norton

For over two months, the Nottingham Contemporary had the privilege to exhibit an expose of renowned and influential 60s photographer, Diane Arbus. Drawing on themes of isolation, interventionism and social scrutiny, Arbus’ portraiture examines the world of the outsider. At times playful and moving whilst others distressing and confrontational, her work continues to polarise art fans across the world. The NC’s exhibit intentionally annexes her later work (photographs of the physically and mentally disabled) to its own room as if to encourage others not to judge her work by this standard first.
As the collection prepared for its departure, Brian Dillon, editor of the esteemed arts magazine, Cabinet, joined the gallery on a lecture exploring the humanity of Arbus’ work. Discussing the abundance (or lack) of regard Arbus had for her subjects, Dillon references the writing of art philosopher, Roland Barthes. Best known for his ground breaking book on the nature of photography, Camera Lucida, Barthes suggests the power and magic of photography is its ability to immortalise the keen energy and personality of a moment (the punktum). Dillon points to why Barthes failed to mention Arbus’ photography in Camera Lucida despite what appears to be a partnership in perspective and philosophy.  LeftLion was fortunate enough to chat to Brian Dillon on his own thoughts about Arbus, Barthes and the NC’s exhibit as it draws to a close.

So what have you thought of the Arbus exhibit at the Nottingham Contemporary?
I think it’s fascinating. There’s quite a lot in the show I hadn’t seen and one of the interesting things for me has been looking at the development of her work towards what we know as the typical Arbus; the confrontation with a single figure, often with people who are kind of marginal to society. But some of the early work is just as interesting because you can see her work her way around what it means to be a photographer up to the Second World War which is in some ways the most exciting time to be a photographer. Nowadays there are many, many artists who work with extreme situations and who photograph fascinating sub cultures and so on. Arbus was doing this at a time, where, especially from the background she came from, upper middle class in New York, was almost unheard of. One of the things the exhibition does is that it takes that leap.

How has your work connecting Barthes and Arbus informed your appreciation of both author and artist?
Well we can’t really know what Barthes thought about Diane Arbus; he died in 1980 and she died in 1971 but it seems interesting to ask because Barthes’ book is the most influential book ever written about photography whilst Arbus is one of the most influential photographers of the last century – so what happens when you put the two together? What you start to see is that it is quite possible that he might have known her work and thought about it - but that’s not interesting. What is interesting is to juxtapose these two creative people and see how one brushes up against the other and what I guess has come out of it is something to do with the relationship between art and experience and the relationship between the image and real physical presence of individuals. Quite often I guess with contemporary art and critical writing on art we don’t write about that so much; we’re more interested in other things that have to do with style, form or politics. What’s interesting with Barthes and Arbus is that they’re both interested in the real physical presence of a person and what happens when you try to represent that.

Diane Arbus - Young Man and His Pregnant Wife in Washington Square Park, NYC 1965
Diane Arbus - Young Man and His Pregnant
Wife in Washington Square Park, NYC 1965

Did you believe Arbus is as a relevant political commentator today as she was in the 60s?
In a way, it’s easier to look at her photographs and think “Well there are many more strange and bizarre images today”. In thirty seconds on the internet you can find things that are much more disturbing and violent and unusual than anything you would see in an Arbus photograph but what’s valuable about Arbus is what was defined as “freakish” at the time and the people in her photographs were called “freaks” or retards in a way that we wouldn’t nowadays. What’s relevant is that moment of a meeting between the photographer and the individual. Sometimes in her work that’s quite aggressive. She wasn’t timid with the people she photographed but she was always trying to get at a relationship. People used to think her as a photographer of oddities or freaks or subcultures, but actually, what’s really interesting is that she approaches people as individuals.

Do you think there are many photojournalists that mirror her style today?
Well I can’t think of any specific photographer because it’s become part of the culture – that sense of getting really close in a really aggressive way has become just part of what’s available to a photographer now. In terms of artists, one of the things that she did, that was unusual at the time, was to photograph people, head on, face on without so much artistry or style. That’s been very influential; there are many photographers that work in that way, that very stark presentation of the individual. The German photographer, Thomas Ruff, is one example but in terms of the documentary photographer, that approach of attacking your subject is now just part of the culture, for better or worse. You might argue it’s not a great thing as it’s part of paparazzi culture, that sense of photography as intrusion as something that we worry a lot about.

Do you believe that modern day photographers have misinterpreted this idea of capturing a special moment between photographer and subject, a punktem that Barthes writes about and perhaps Arbus captures?
Well one of the things I think that happens with any great influential critic, no matter what art they’re writing about, is that their ideas become simplified other the years. Art students or students of literature and many humanities subjects now may come across the work of Roland Barthes and quite often these ideas get boiled down to a core that sometimes is misleading. What’s really interesting in a writer like Roland Barthes is that when you get to grips with the writing he’s actually much more enjoyable and playful and exciting than you might discover as part of a cultural theory course of art. So yes, that’s what interests me in a way, is that he’s not really a theorist, he’s more interested in the experience.

Barthes encouraged anonymity in art whereby the art no longer is a possession of the artist. Do you not feel that Arbus’ photography reflects that?
Yes, it does in a way because although she got physically quite close to her subjects in so much as she had to get in their face, at the same time there’s still a kind of distance. She talked about the subjects she had photographed; she thought they were wonderful, interesting, and extraordinary. She didn’t want them to be her friends though; she said “Just because I want to photograph you doesn’t mean I want to kiss you in real life”. So there is always a distance with her but at the same time the photographs end up being intimate and actually about real human existence of the individual. There’s a real sort of paradox in Arbus and Roland Barthes is the same because he came up with the idea of the “death of the author” – that what mattered in writing was the writing and not the person who wrote – but at the end of his life he ends up writing in a very subjective and emotional way. The other thing to remember about Arbus is that she built up a kind of mythology about herself: this tiny woman who was always carrying around these bags of camera equipment and was always very lively. If she was photographing at some society or something, Diane Arbus would be popping out at you, using flash, which is quite violent especially in nightclubs and parties – this person constantly assaulting you. I think she played up to that, that she was kind of a mischievous and unpredictable person. So that in a sense is part of her cool ironic distance; she wanted to be a legendary photographer.

Finally, could I have your expert persuasion on why everyone should make an effort to see the Arbus exhibit if they haven’t already?
I’ll keep it simple. They will find an artist who was working forty to fifty years ago whose work does – and it sounds a cliché – look distinctly contemporary and exciting, and not just exciting as photography but as one person engaging with the world and engaging with other people!

The work of Diane Arbus was exhibited at the Nottingham Contemporary from 17 July to 3 October 2010.


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