Friday, May 08, 2009

Diane Arbus - Cardiff Exhibition

Yesterday evening at the National Museum of Wales a celebration took place to mark the opening of the blockbuster Diane Arbus exhibition. In attendance were the great and the good of the Welsh arts world. And, oddly enough, amidst the canapés, roll-neck sweaters and trendy eyewear, I was there too.

As a photographer of 'freaks' Arbus is something of a controversial figure in the history of twentieth century visual arts. To some she is no more than a voyeur, exploiting the physically unfortunate. Susan Sontag famously described her work as "suggesting a world in which everybody is alien, hopelessly isolated, immobilized in mechanical, crippled identities and relationships."

To others Arbus is an uncompromising artist who dared to poke her lens into the darker corners of American life. That she killed herself in 1971, using pills and a razor blade, has only added to her posthumously constructed cool outsider image. In fact, when Diane Arbus (1972) was published soon after her suicide, it became one of the best-selling photobooks of all time.

Looking through the 69 prints on show in Cardiff I was struck by how much the notion of what constitutes 'freak' has changed. Nudists, mixed-race couples, even drag queens have largely been normalised since Arbus's day. Not that this exhibition is entirely free of the whiff of the fairground, mind. You'll also discover pictures of dwarves, Siamese twins, and a jewish giant.

In many of her portraits the subjects stare unswervingly back at you. It's quite unnerving. These so-called freaks meet your gaze completely free of shame - the viewer and the viewed become equal and oddly democratised. Empathy, then, rather than exploitation underpins much of her work.

At the show I bumped into legendary Magnum photographer David Hurn. It was time to play devil's advocate: Arbus was a rich girl trawling through the gutter, exploiting the marginalised for the entertainment of the bourgeoisie, I suggested. David's response was succinct: "Bullshit. She spent hours and hours getting to know her subjects - they trusted her. Her work is humanist." I was curious to know whether he'd ever met her. "When the Sunday Times brought her to London in 1970 she slept on my floor in Bayswater. At night she'd go off and photograph the bikers who congregated near Westminster Bridge." How good a photographer was she? "As great as, say, Rembrandt was a painter."

I tend to agree with him but do go along and make up your own minds. The Diane Arbus exhibition runs at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, from 9 May - 31 August 2009.