July 11, 2012

The Timothy Taylor Gallery in London is currently hosting an exhibition of 32 of Diane Arbus’s photographs, many of which have never been seen in the UK before. The title, Affinities, alludes to Arbus’s continual exploration throughout her life and through her work of what it is that people share, or do not, and what may or may not connect them.

Diane Arbus was born in New York City in 1923, and rarely left her home city throughout her relatively short life. Whenever she did, she yearned to return. She discovered photography in the 1940s, which became her all-consuming passion. She believed that photography was ‘born perfect’ (Patricia Bosworth, Diane Arbus: A Biography, London: Vintage, 2005, p.189), and she was tenacious, and often reckless, in her pursuit of the ultimate image. Everything she saw, and captured through her lens, was extraordinary to her. Photographs allowed choices, and an exploration of aspects of life, and lives, that were usually considered taboo, forbidden, distasteful: ‘I want to photograph what is evil.’ (Bosworth, p.130). Reprimanded as a child for staring at those who were different, ‘freaks’, as an artist she chose to unscrupulously focus on those on the periphery of society, demanding in turn that we also bear witness.

Arbus too was on the periphery, continually feeling alone and separate, and terrified by an unshakeable sense of aloneness. She suffered from recurring bouts of depression, as did her mother and brother. She committed suicide in 1971, at the age of 48. A year after her death, her work was selected for the Venice Biennale, the first American photographer to have been so honoured.

I have seen Arbus’s work before, but this current exhibition encapsulates an intriguing thematic approach to a significant body of her work. The accompanying notes quote Arbus:

‘…Every difference is a likeness too.’

Thus, affinities here means not just what is shared or similar, but also that which differentiates.

Take for example, Triplets in their bedroom, N.J. (1963), which shows identical sisters sitting in a row. At first glance, they look ‘the same’, but on closer viewing, the photograph subtly differentiates the girls, so that the image we see challenges the notion of identical. Arbus herself described this image as both ‘flat and extraordinary’, the sisters reminding her of her own adolescence – daughter, sister and bad girl (Bosworth, p.217).

Arbus’s great skill was that of creating something real in her photographic representations. Of A blind couple in their bedroom, Queens, N.Y . (1971), Arbus spoke of the relative ease when photographing the blind – there is no mask (Bosworth, p.164). Many of her photographs, not just that of the blind couple, do seem to unmask the subject, to present an image of something authentic. This was not an accident.  Arbus was known for her dogged persistence, her perfectionism when it came to her art, as she relentlessly and tirelessly pursued and froze each image just as it really was.

The exhibition includes photographs of ‘look-alikes’, for example Winston Churchill and Elizabeth Taylor, two girls in matching bathing suits, two girls in identical raincoats…we are told that they are look-alikes, yet the photographs leave you with the sense that the same can also be very different.

The exhibition also includes Russian midget friends in a living room on 100th Street, N.Y.C. (1963), part of her ‘freaks’ series, which was much inspired by Tod Browning’s film of the same name.

There are moments of sublime tenderness, as portrayed in Girl sitting in bed with her boyfriend, N.Y.C. (1966). The series of photographs where Arbus captured her subjects through their mirror reflections are also very moving. I have wondered since why this is. Perhaps, as I looked at the subject looking at the subject, it felt as if Arbus had somehow positioned me where she had been, so that I had an acute sense of her original perspective being frozen in time.

In Arbus’s own personal life, there was an extraordinary symbiotic closeness, and affinity, between the artist and her husband Allan, who she met as a teenager. The couple were often described as resembling a sister and brother, even twins, even in physical appearance: ‘same mournful, watchful expression.’ (Bosworth, p.158). For Allan, the connection did not last, and although they continued to be friends throughout her life, Arbus never appeared to recover from the failure of the marriage and its consequent loneliness.

This exhibition coincides with a major touring exhibition of Arbus’s work, which has been in Paris, is currently in Berlin, and will end in Amsterdam in the autumn, where I hope to see it. I will report back…

Diane Arbus: Affinities

Timothy Taylor Gallery

15 Carlos Place

London W1K 2EX

26 June – 17 August 2012

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