Diane Arbus by Nona Jolley
In America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly, Susan Sontag takes on three giants of American culture on what eventually focuses a critique of the photographic work and subject matter of Diane Arbus. The architecture of the pieces is held together via the lens of Whitman, whom Sontag argues, set out to stir an all encompassing revolution (starting with culture) that ultimately failed and only recruited the enlightened elite as foot soldiers. In his evaluative view, the “beautiful” and the “ugly” sit alongside on the hierarchy of visual culture; both are worthy of praise and this subjective characteristics are deemed interchangeable. He is not killing the concept of beauty, he is simply expanding it.
The validity of the image, then, is the choice of subject matter – the very choice of becoming photograph ascribes relevance for contemplation and critique. There is no restriction on choice, though some contemporary tropes clearly become problematic. The image is finally liberated from prior evaluative constraints and is now considered through choices.
Walker Evans, especially through his earlier work, is presented as the last true and devoted American soldier of the Whitman crusade. His dedication to framing truth in images, photographs that are “literate, authoritative and transcendent”, are the manifestation of formal beauty. They are as poetic and coercive as Waltman’s Leaves of Grass.
The highly idealized, and arguably stylized, vision of America is shattered and co-opted through the fashionable representation of physiognomic typologies developed by photographers like Steichen and consequently Arbus. The realistic encyclopedic observational archives of human subjects create a problematique of ethics, morals and ownership for the viewer, the photographer and the subject(s) alike.
Sontag turns to the short and controversial career of Diane Arbus as an exploratory minefield of colliding values. Where Steichen created material as a vehicle for inclusiveness, Abus’ material is arguably an exercise in othering.
While the first read of Sontag’s opinion on Arbus seems to discredit the entire ouvre as an elitist exercise by a person of privilege, her nuanced description of the work reveals a more complex relationship with the material. The instinctual reaction is to discredit these iconic images of freaks and the disenfranchised as a superficial exercise of othering – an experiment to show the other face of America. Alternatively, Sontag guides us through a more supportive reading of the work when describing the photographer as a highly complex and wounded human being that is possibly holding a mirror to her suffering standing tall, looking directly at the world and embracing her shortcomings through her subjects, freaks that are in fact a fair representation of all of us.