Diane Arbus, Timothy Taylor Gallery

Yesterday I decamped to Mayfair to see Diane Arbus at the Timothy Taylor Gallery. Obviously I wasn’t actually seeing Diane Arbus herself due to her opting for a career change just under four decades ago and switching from “photographer” to “corpse”.

I’m not sure how many of you know her work directly but you will probably be familiar with the echoes of it in other artforms.

Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967 (L) - Twins from The Shining, Stanley Kubrick, 1980 (R)

Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967 (L) - Twins from The Shining, Stanley Kubrick, 1980 (R)

Her body of work focuses on the borders of society – it is full of oddness and awkwardness and loneliness – and has proven contoversial. After all, coming from a privileged background and taking pictures of people you dub ‘freaks’ you can’t really be surprised if someone like Susan Sontag accuses you of exploitative voyeurism. However, when you dig a little deeper you realise the adoration Arbus had for her subjects. She went into their homes and their lives, talked to them and built relationships with them. The subject of another famous picture says almost exactly that.

Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, New York City, 1962

Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, New York City, 1962

Colin Wood, the boy in the photo was recently interviewed by The Washington Post about the image and gave the following response:

She catches me in a moment of exasperation. It’s true, I was exasperated. My parents had divorced and there was a general feeling of loneliness, a sense of being abandoned. I was just exploding. She saw that and it’s like . . . commiseration. She captured the loneliness of everyone. It’s all people who want to connect but don’t know how to connect. And I think that’s how she felt about herself.

The last couple of sentences are crucial to an understanding of her work. Ultimately Diane Arbus was a troubled person. She saw loneliness and was lonely, saw outsiders and was an outsider herself. It’s not a particularly profound observation, especially given that she committed suicide but it does blunt the “Rich-Girl-slumming-it” accusations somewhat.

As for her legacy; Annie Leibovitz stated in an interview:

She was a very, very important photographer because she was taking pictures of people that we as a society did not want to look at. Not that we didn’t want to look at them, we didn’t even see them.[…] when I first moved to New York at every corner I could see Diane Arbus pictures but I would not even see these people unless I’d looked into Diane’s Arbus pictures. I would mentally not be looking at these people.

P.S. As it happens I didn’t get to go to the exhibition as the gallery closes ridiculously early on a Saturday afternoon. Frustrating times!

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