Who’s Afraid of Diane Arbus?

Some images  enter the very essence of you; they read your memories and mind, drink your blood, lick your sweat and feast on your flesh. Or, perhaps they can’t. And it’s all in your mind alone: In your darkest hours you may see ghosts everywhere. In the streets, on a coffee table or in the eyes of your childhood friend. When this becomes your reality, there’s should come as no surprise being haunted by the photographic work of a dead woman?

Right now, in Oslo,  the Peder Lund gallery is exhibiting 21 photographic prints by Diane Arbus. For any person in town having even the tiniest interest in photography, a show like this is too tempting to resist. A chance to have a peak at Identical twins, and standing face to face with Child with a toy hand grenade .

I know this might not sound all ground-shaking exciting to you, but Norway is most of the time a small an un-interesting country. Too far off in the periphery for anyone to take it seriously.

One funny thing I noticed, even before visiting the gallery, is that the gallery’s press release’s staring sentences focus singularly on her suicide. As if the woman did nothing but dying, during her 48 years of being alive. Taking photographs, of course, and dying. Seemingly this is a way standard practice when introducing Arbus, at least around here.

I guess the only real issue with presenting pictures, inside the frame of how the photographer died, is a simple one:  The obvious truth given by a psychology student so humbly the other day; no, in fact, he can not read minds. It’s true, he can’t. Nor will he be able to do so when his education is done. Then, why do the rest of us take our mind-reading abilities for granted? – Can we honestly read the fate of Mrs Arbus into a set of silver prints?

We all live in this curious world, where we’re taught that a picture can say more than a thousand words. Then we grow up, and figure out the sad fact that photographs just may lie in just a similar manner. And we count this discovery in words, and in words alone. Because if a thing can’t be said, or let alone written, it can not possibly be. As I recall,Susan Sontag touched briefly upon this subject when writing her (in)famous critique on Diane’s artistic work and talent.

These days most people first encounter Arbus’ work through the words of scandal; depression and the tale of the tormented generous. The voyeur. Had it not been that I’d first seen her photographs, and only later heard her life-story (vividly unfolded by an amused storyteller) the infinite numbers of words would have deceived me. And I would never have known!

The photography of Diane Arbus does in very possible way deal with the human condition. The everyday freaky moments, and the single uniqueness of  pretty much anything. She found herself sitting in people’s living room, photographing them as they were. Normal human beings, like non of us and everyone. In any case her photographs never showed  how hideous people might be, now paraphrasing Sontag.

Who’s afraid of Diane Arbus? I was, for a very long time. When surveying her photographs in the grim light of a computer screen. Then, with an adventurer at heart I searched her work again, in life this time. And what I found was everything besides frightening.

There are an awful lot of people in the world and it’s going to be terribly hard to photograph all of them… It was my teacher Lisette Model who finally made it clear to me that the more specific you are, the more general it will be. – Diane Arbus


Mother, Vadsø 2011

2 thoughts

    • Hi Jennifer, and thank you for dropping by!
      I actually read some critiques on that book before writing this piece. Appearently the opinions on her life, as well as the biography, are quite divided. Do you have any thoughts on the biography? Besides the fact that you enjoyed it?
      – I’ve been thinking about reading it some day, but am sort of afraid it will leave me with that “old impression” of mine. Seeing nothing but death in her images. Words are powerful, as I am sure you know.

Any thoughts?

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