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Tuesday, 21 March 2017

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I remember reading a Diana Arbus book many years ago, and coming to this picture. And I remember I thought: "Hmmm, where is the depressing aspect of this picture?" And then I saw the replica hand-grenade in his hand.

How very instructive! Looking at the entire contact sheet, it's clear that DA chose an exposure in which the boy displays a slightly demented expression. I always assumed that there was something a little wrong with this kid. But in most of the frames, he does not appear so afflicted. So was she looking for the most freakish image? I am guessing she was.

That book has never gone out of print for many reasons.
The pictures are beautiful and arresting and even people who don't care about photography find them fascinating. It's a great teaching and learning tool—Diane shows how much you can say by emptying the frame of everything but your subject.
And finally in hte great chain of photography, she is the mighty link that ties Weegee to Robert Maplethorpe.

Diane Arbus is hands down one of the greats. I believe her deep exploration of human kind is unparalleled in photography. And still, amazingly, instills fear in people.


I second @stanleyk recommendation of the "Diane Arbus Portrait of a Photographer" biography. I certainly gives one a deeper understanding of, and appreciation for, her work. Although as he mentions there a none of her photos in the book (as her estate wouldn't give permission to use them) another source of her photos would be very useful.

Hi Mike;

I read several photo blogs. Almost all, it seems, are more concerned with hardware then about photographs. We all need to know about our tools. But, it's about the photographs we make with them that's important. Thanks for knowing the difference.

Bit of trivia. Fans of the TV show M.A.S.H. may remember the character Maj. Sidney Freedman the psychiatrist. Real name, Allan Arbus, Diane's husband. He was also a photographer.
If you want to watch a really weird & depressing movie about Diane Arbus's decent into mental illness, rent Fur.
Diane too , came from money. Although for some reason the family did not cut her in. I may be wrong, but I think it had to do with her marriage.

Can you imagine the reflexive panic and police swarm that that kid might cause in Central Park today?

I saw the Arbus show at the SFMOM ("in the beginning" I think it's called, and it's curated by the MOMA and currently on the road)

The work she did before she got into medium format is substantially different and to my eye more interesting, if not as polished.

The themes are still present. As I gave remarked elsewhere, while Arbus's remark "a photo is a secret about a secret" may not be true about all photos, it's jolly well true about hers.

Ever since I discovered that this photograph is a bit of a fake - the boy looks perfectly normal in all the other shots - I haven't been able to look at it in the same way. Mind you I've always struggled with Arbus. She strikes me as somebody who took rather ordinary photographs of 'interesting' people (freaks as I think she herself may have said) whereas I admire those who can take interesting pictures of ordinary people. Just my opinion anyhow.

Really enjoy the posts about photographs and photographers, by the way. Too many gear-focused sites out there!

The selection of that image from that contact sheet illustrates precisely why I don't worship at the Arbus altar. On the contrary. I believe that it *is* possible to undertake a 'deep exploration of human kind' while still respecting people.

As a physician, I looked at the image of the little kid clinically and proceeded to diagnose him with some form of Muscular Dystrophy and presumed that he would be dead in the near future.
Much to my surprise, several years later the "kid," now grown-up and apparently leading a quite normal and productive life, responded to an article about himself in one of the photography magazines. (Egg all over my face!)
I am NOT an Arbus fan!

One of the long standing misconceptions in photography is that a successful portrait somehow manages to capture the subject's "inner essence." And it is perhaps this monograph that has most served that misconception throughout the decades, even though what Arbus was probably capturing most in her subjects were varying aspects of her own inner workings.

I'm with Darlene.
Seems the boy is pulling a face in the main picture, is this in respopnse to a stimulus from the photographer?
If so, it's another 'set-up', which provokes my reaction.
It's strange to me that there's no middle ground with Arbus: people either love or detest her work, no maybes.
Regards,
David

I've already commented so I hope I am not wearing out my welcome!

Looking at Arbus early work it becomes quite clear that she's not even remotely interested in revealing the inner truth, in peeling away the layers of artifice. The standard methods of The Candid (before the defensive mask goes up) and The Portrait (after the defensive mask is peeled away) are irrelevant to Arbus.

Because she's interested mainly in the mask. Which renders her practically unique, I think, and also makes pretty much everything you've ever heard or learned about her snap into sharp focus.

In particular, I think it explains the lead photo of this post perfectly. It could be just me, since boy oh boy is my explanation pat, and reality rarely is.

The photograph of the boy with the grenade has always seemed to me to bring into question so called expert interpretation of photographs sans captions. To me it portrayed a boy goofing about with a replica grenade pretending to be extremely perplexed as to what he should do next, nothing more nothing less, similar to anyone's reaction to being landed with something grotesque such as a live snake or a rat.

I find myself being extremely skeptical of many of the longwinded inept interpretations people who are supposed to know about these things put forward, if it looks and walks like a duck maybe that's what it is.

Or maybe Not-So-Random Excellence ;)

Is a portrait of someone goofing or mugging or reacting somehow less "genuine" than the dignified neutrality we are socialized to present to the world in our guarded moments, or any of the rehearsed affects that we reflexively perform in front of a stranger or a camera, or a stranger with a camera? Are those performances any less "set up" for being normative? Not in the least. The only difference is whether the performer, presenter and audience are all working from the same, officially approved, script.

Don't get me wrong, I'm as happy as the next person to subscribe to the fantasy that a portrait can reveal some mythical inner aspect of the subject or of the artist; but is there any doubt that a portrait, whatever else it may be doing, holds up a mirror to the observer?

IMO, the best examples of the art speak to the observer's private and public ways of seeing, and illuminate the relationship between them. In some cases, that relationship can be dissonant--even uncomfortably dissonant. I think that's why Arbus' portraits simultaneously compel and repel. Some people find value, even comfort, in that sensation, while for others it's an experience they simply want no part of and do not value. Valid reactions, both, and testament to the power of the work.

Instructive to see just how Arbus manipulated her subject, an ordinary looking kid, until she finally had an image that makes the little fellow look like a psychopath about to go on a rampage. Think I'll take a pass on the portfolio bidding.

The problem with Arbus is that it's like watching a train wreck in slow motion. This was a deeply disturbed woman who also happened to be a great photographer. Unfortunately her unique photography wouldn't exist without her mentality. That always tempers my appreciation of the results, keeping in mind where it ultimately led her.

All people photography is exploitative to some extent but Arbus seems to do this to an excessive degree, which is why I have never been able to warm to her work.

I have used this image and the contact sheet reproduction so many times when teaching, nice to see all the various insightful comments about it.
Re the featured comment about the apparent dodging artefact on the boy's right arm, I had never noticed it before (despite looking at the reproduction so many times...): the commenter, implies this is particular to the sale print made by Neil Selkirk. The reproduction in my copy of the 2003 "Revelations" catalogue shows the exact same artefact. Is the book reproduction from a Selkirk or an Arbus print?
Most odd anyway, it isn't even obvious to me why you would dodge (or bleach?) that area. To add to the mystery Selkirk states in "Revelations" that he tried to match his prints to an Arbus example as closely as possible and that Arbus seemed to have used dodging and burning only very infrequently. So is it even a dodging artefact at all? I suspect not because you can see a trace of it in the contact sheet reproduced about life size in "Revelations".
Would love to hear from someone who has seen a print in person!

Dave.

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