BA Phot

Diane Arbus

In the beginning


Back - - - subject analysis

Hayward Gallery
Hayward Gallery

Articles - Guardian - Telegraph

I didn't expect to enjoy the show particularly and the staging, from what I heard in advance, sounded pretentious, but I was wrong on both counts.

I did not read all the background material provided by Jayne Taylor, the accompanying tutor as I prefer to approach a show unencumbered by others' views, but the essential reading from the gallery was good.

1. A box of ten photographs
© Arbus estate

While the prints were a little smaller than I would have liked, showing them on square (?) pillars with an image front and back, allowing the visitor to chart their own course and skip past any huddles worked well.

At the tutor's suggestion, we started with the later set, A box of ten photographs. These are some of Arbus' best known works but I find them sterile and artificially staged. The uncanny resemblance of the chap in curlers to Will Self is disturbing.

By contrast, the early works are unrestrained, but not without their faults. Annoyingly, photography was not allowed in the show and so my normal practise of snapping all the (to my mind) good ones was thwarted. I have made a note of the titles and will try to track the images down online or, if necessary, buy the book (I did order a copy of Revelations which is far more comprehensive, but two seemed excessive). Revelations includes the splendid quote,

A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know Five Photographs by Diane Arbus, Artforum, May 1971, quoted in Revelations, details to follow

I do not know what it means (probably whatever you want it to) but it is magnificent.

I gradually assembled the images into several categories:
1. Not worth printing,
2. My favourites,
3. Greatest titles,
4. Should never have been taken,
5. Humour.

a lot of the conversation in the group before, during and after the show, as one might expect, concerned Arbus' seeming obsession with (what some called) transgressives. I prefer to use the label sub-cultures, because

1. Not worth printing, there were quite a few of these, notably Blurry Woman, 1957 and Elderly woman whispering to her dinner partner, 1959? Also a number of shots of TV or cinema screens which I could not see the point of. I cannot find Blurry woman online and so took a shot from the catalogue when I called in again the next day to count the subjects. I realised then that I no longer dislike the badly focussed shots. I think I took an initial dislike to them on the first visit, because of the antipathy I arrived with for which they were easy targets: by the time I left on Day 1 I liked Arbus; by the time I arrived on Day 2 I liked her defocussed shots. It is interesting to explore how little visual information is needed to understand what is being depicted. I would have liked to see the Seymour shot (fig. A3) in colour.

But I still dislike the 7 pointless images of TV and movie screens.

Box A
Not worth printing Recanted
1. Blurry woman gazing up smiling, NYC, 1957
2. Elderly woman whispering to her dinner partner, 1959?
3. Miss Marian Seymour dancing with Baron Theo von Roth at the Grand Opera Ball,NYC, date?
© Arbus estate

2. My favourites I considered Girl in profile (B1) to be one of the strongest images in the show. Although it is relatively unusual for Arbus to use "normal" subjects (if I visit again or buy the book, I will conduct an analysis of the subjects [1Apr19 10:51 - bugger it I'm going back now to do just that ]. Although it is a busy picture, the viewer's attention always returns to the girl: the surroundings, even the bright lights on the left and the van on the right are just sufficiently defocussed to be recognisable but ignored. The car wing entering bottom right is a not uncommon feature in Arbus shots: there is, for example, a similar armchair arm in Jewish Giant from box of 10. But attention returns to the girl's face. She is looking up, perhaps expectantly, probably just watching a crossing light, but encouraging the viewer to upload their own speculations into the picture.

Box B

1. Girl in profile looking up, N.Y.C.,, 1956
2. text, date
© Arbus estate

There is another fine quote shown in the exhibition catalogue as an image of one of Arbus' notebooks,

A photograph flattens time at the same instant and in the same way as it flattens space. [It] Contains past and future … is its own memoryits own oracle [? not sure about the last word]. Arbus notebook

3. Best Title This takes the prize for the most inappropriate title. The ethics of photographing and displaying the image is a separate question, touched on below. The photographer’s contact sheets, when they are available, can provide a worthwhile insight into their working methods, especially their image selection. I took a snap of Arbus' sheet for this session at the gallery and will replace it with an improved scan, sequenced in the order in which they were taken, when Revelations arrives [done 3Apr19].

Box C
Best Titles

1. Corpse with a receding hairline and toe tag. N.Y.C., 1959
2. contact sheet 1959
3. contact sheet, reformatted
© Arbus estate

4. Should never have been taken we had several discussions over whether Arbus took advantage of her subjects, to what extent they were complicit in or enthusiastic about being photographed. In this case, however, I think it is simply wrong to photograph and to publicise a subject in this state because they cannot possibly have agreed to it. By contrast, there was an image nearby of the body of a dead saint and I did not have a problem with that.
And back to the corpse undergoing an autopsy in fig. C1, above: it is included for the bizarre title which mentions the incidentals but ignores the viscera in the room. The image turned my stomach when I first saw it and does again while processing it. There are questions of taste and ethics over whether it should be shown. C1 and D1 are pushing the bounds of medical pornography.

The other image in this category was a woman in a public shower, again presumably photographed without her consent. I have not found that online yet.

Box D
Should never have been taken

1. “Old woman in a hospital bed, N.Y.C., , 1958
[2. Mother Cabrini, a Disinterred Saint in a Gold Casket, , 1960 ]
© Arbus estate

5. Humour I was quite surprised to see an image that made me chuckle and I surmised that there would only be one. But soon after there was a second.
Rocks on wheels is genuinely funny, but I guess I should question why it is in order to mock the chap on the beach, but not poke fun at most of the subjects Arbus photographs.

Presumably the severe fading effect on his surroundings, emphasising the main character, was achieved in the darkroom.
E3., Waving not drowning for gender balance.

Box E

1. Rocks on Wheels, Disneyland, Cal., 1963
2. Man in hat, trunks, socks and shoes, Coney Island, NY, , 1960
3. Old woman with hands raised in the ocean, Coney Island, N.Y., 1960
© Arbus estate

Regular Arbus The images above are the ones I noted for a special mention on my first visit because they were unexpected or stand out in another way. Those below were noted as striking images worth futher investigation / comment /deliberation. There were a few I couldn't find online, listed at the bottom.

Box F
1. Lady on a bus, NYC, , 1957
2. Lady in front of a portrait, N.Y.C., 1956
3. Man Yelling Times Square, date?
4. Girl with a pointy hood and white schoolbag at the curb, N.Y.C., 1957
5. Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C., 1962
5(a). contact sheet for #5, 1962
6. dead pig, no details
© Arbus estate

F1. Why is a women in a fur coat riding a bus? Is that look of disdain her default or summoned especially for the photographer? I noted at the show that one of the sources mentioned that there is an earlier shot and I wanted to look inti this.

F2. Perhaps I chose this to mention as a shot of an unremarkable person as being unusual in an Arbus show. In many Ex's I might have passed it by, but it has its own merits. Just the right amount of motion blur to be more interesting than a still subject; interesting to note the inclusion of the distracting wall rail that could have been cropped; a desite to know what the subject is looking at.

F3. I immediately thought of Ian Paisley (Snr.).

F4. A good title (another student the named this her favourite title). I like the glance the girl is giving the photographer. Again, a contact sheet would be good to see any other shots and whether it has been cropped - there is a lot of space around the subject.

F5. Shots of kids pulling faces are routine but toy hand grenades are unusual (in my experience, at least). The contact sheet is where the interest lies: 11 shots of this boy on the roll, this is image 8 of 11. The others have him posing, some smiling, some without the grenade. Arbus clearly spent a while with the boy and I would guess she asked him to pull a face for this one.

F6. Again this was included for being unusual within the show. There are probably parallels to be drawn with C1. Corpse … and toe tag, but I will leave that for the observer.

Analysis of subjects

I duly returned to the Hayward and analysed the subjects on display. Some are hard to categorise and some fit into more than one category (in which case I try to opt for the category which features most strongly in the image title). On the train going up to town I wrote down ½doz. categories (circus/showground, stripper, transvestite, medical, old woman, child/children), including "normal" but I ended up with a lot more. There were only two entries in the normal section, one of which was the giant son in box of 10 and so I invented a new category, "families" and populated that from memory.

Subject Count Subject Count Subject Count
circus / showground [1] 18 TV / movie screen 7 waxworks / mannequin 3
children / youth 17 couple [4] 7 short stature [6] 2
single woman
old woman [2]
female impersonator [5] 6 bodybuilder 1
single man [3] 9 family 5 medical 1
no people 9     normal 1

1. includes wrestlers and santa
2. two of the titles specifically state "old" woman and one "elderly". This was discussed and it was stated that Arbus was "not a feminist", but no conclusion was reached on the distinction
3. includes Uncle Sam
4. includes the nudist couple in box of 10
5. this is the phrase used in the picture titles
6. the label has been changed to minimise potential offence

G1 Max Maxwell Landar, Uncle Sam, N.Y.C., 1961.

Not found

I made a list on my first visit of the images I wanted to find online. Those below are the remaining ones I have not found.

snaps of TV, mentioned above but not sought.

Uncle Sam at ? 1958 (this is the one in his hotel room. These is another available online (G1) of, presumably the same person, outdoors, not in the exhibition). I wanted this one as much to show the dodgy exposure as the subject.
old woman with husband - I might have made this one up, it could be fig. A2

Page created 31-Mar-2019 | Page updated 04-Apr-2019