Her work has been described as surreal. I say, maybe. Yes, many of the portraits are of the disenfranchised, some of freakish people, transvestites, the intellectually challenged, incomprehensibly sad people or just plain pathetic people. The oddest portrait of all, baby Anderson Cooper (Yes, that Anderson Cooper), peacefully asleep, beatific Buddha expression on his square features, so incongruous to so much of Arbus’ oeuvre.* It is as though Arbus understood that we are closest to God at birth and death. At the same time, the portrait reminds me of it’s opposite, David Alfaro Siqueiros’ “Echo of a Scream,” because the two baby heads look so much alike, though baby Anderson Cooper is seen straight on, and Siqueiros’ baby head is seen in three-quarter view, mouth wide open, face scrunched into and expression of absolute terror. I can’t help but wonder if Arbus, because of her own temperament, made a mental comparison of the two baby heads. I also find an antecedent to Arbus in the portraiture of American painter Thomas Eakins, because his portraits of late 19th century wealthy and/or middle class people, though less confrontational, most often gaze enigmatically and sadly into an inscrutable distance demonstrating an unfathomable angst so much like many of Arbus’ subjects.
So, why do I think Arbus’ work could be classified as similar to the Social Realism created by the Mexican Muralists, and later American photographers like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange? The Mexican Muralists were all about social injustice and the disenfranchised in Mexico and they wanted to change that. Evans and Walker were all about social injustice and the disenfranchised migrant workers in our own country during the great depression. Arbus, from a crusty Jewish family, didn’t express out loud a desire to make change. However, she did demonstrate a fascination with identity and the disenfranchised in her contemporary culture through her photographs. And it isn’t only the subject matter, it is the choice of stark black and white photography, like Weegee’s street photographs, the use of a 2 and ¼” square format camera that produced stark detail, extreme contrast, often shallow depth of field (through her choice of f stop), and direct frontal contact with the subject(s) who often stare directly out at the viewer. Through her subjects and technique she expresses a desire to confront the viewer directly with a deeply felt sense of isolation based in her protracted episodes of depression. Through her eyes, ordinary middle class families are seen as the other, an understanding this author views as a contemporary political reality.
Bringing My Own life Experience to the Subject
Personally, in 1965 I was criticized by my photography instructor at the Museum College of Art (now the University of the Arts) for making photographs of people in a similar vein to Arbus. At the time, the instructor knew Arbus’ work. I did not. Looking back, I realize that I was an intellectual pigmy, and my instructor used that against me instead of opening the door to Arbus’ amazing oeuvre. Through her work, Arbus would have surely given entrance into a visual gallery of greater self-knowledge for yours truly.
*1 Photographs are From Diane Arbus Photography on the Web, http://diane-arbus-photography.com/. Viewed 10:00 A.M. EDT, Tuesday, April 5, 2011. It is known that one time documented use of copyrighted images for scholarly purpose, as in this journal entry, is legal use.
*2 Siqueiros, David Alfaro, "Echo of a Scream" from Threedonia.com, http://www.threedonia.com/archives/11707, Viewed 10:12 A.M., EDT, Wednesday, April 6, 2011. It is known that one time documented use of copyrighted images for scholarly purpose, as in this journal entry, is legal use.
*3 The juxtaposition of these two works of art is in no way meant to be a comment on the person, character or origin of Anderson Cooper whom the author genuinely admires because of his work as journalist, author, and Television News personality for CNN network. The comparison is meant solely as intellectual exercise for the comparison of two artworks and has nothing to do with any association any viewer might possibly make other than that intended by the author.
*4 Eakins, Thomas, "Susan Macdowell Eakins," bestpriceart.com. Viewed 10:32 A.M., Wednesday, April 6, 2011. It is known that one time documented use of copyrighted images for scholarly purpose, as in this journal entry, is legal use.
*5 Arbus, Diane, "Transvestite at Drag Ball, NYC" 1970. At Elaine's *T Art Journal, http://elainearmen.blogspot.com/2009/02/photographs-by-diane-arbus.htmlViewed 11:33 A.M., Wednesday, April 6, 2011. It is known that one time documented use of copyrighted images for scholarly purpose, as in this journal entry, is legal use.
*6 Arbus, Diane, "Young Brooklyn Family on a Sunday Outing" (1966) "Diane Arbus Revelations," At Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, June 17 to September 10, 2006, http://visualarts.walkerart.org/detail.wac?id=2683&title=Current%20Exhibitions. Viewed 11:50 AM EDT, Wednesday, April 6, 2011. It is known that one time documented use of copyrighted images for scholarly purpose, as in this journal entry, is legal use.