Diane Arbus and Susan Sontag's 'America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly'

I had already planned to write a blog post about Diane Arbus and been looking at her images, read a few websites etc, when I stumbled on the chapter 'America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly' in Susan Sontag's 'On Photography'. So first I'd like to discuss this chapter and how Sontag describes whether photography is a private vision versus a reflection of reality. She shows that Diane Arbus' work is mostly a result of her own voluntary consciousness. That even the weirdness and sadness that the subjects show is a result of her private vision and have little to do with the subjects themselves.

Susan Sontag describes how photography shifted from 'showing identity between things which are different (Whitman's democratic vista) to images where everybody is shown to look the same'. Even pain and terrible atrocities are presented in the same way, as 'Art that is a self willed test of hardness' High art in capitalist countries is there 'to surpres, or at least reduce moral and sensory queasiness. Much of modern art is devoted to lowering the threshold of what is terrible'. Diane Arbus' work is a pure example of this shift. 'She does not play her subject matter, all her subjects are equivalent'. It's 'not journalistic, sensational, rather surrealist, taste for the grotesque, professed innocence with respect to their subjects, their claim that all subjects are merely objets trouvés'. I find Susan Sontag's conclusion very striking. The price of this shift is that photography does not serve as 'a liberation, but as a subtraction from the self'. 

According to Sontag Arbus is not an ethical photojournalist, nor does she show any moral values in her work. Her work is an escape from boredom, a drive to explore the reality that she missed in her upperclass Jewish upbringing. Maybe that's why her photographs don't arouse a certain compassion for the subjects, it seems irrelevant to have any feelings towards them at all. Susan Sontag describes Arbus way of photography as a colonization of new experiences, finding a new way to look at familiar subjects, a fight against boredom.

Reading quotes from Arbus on the internet, I notice that her ideas of the work only reflect Sontag's in part. She does describe it as an escape from boredom, 'the naughty thing to do', but also says '“For me, the subject of the picture is always more important than the picture.” Reflecting on Sontag's ideas I wonder if this is true. Isn't it that the most important aspect of her photography was to get the subjects to look weird, estranged?

In some images I read a direct reaction to Arbus' on the subjects faces. There is obviously a clash of misunderstanding going on and not a willingness to open up to each other. In the case of Arbus, to wait with shooting the image till the subject is at ease, or in case of the subject, to be tolerant of the strange photographer in front of them. There's a decision from both sides that determine the look of the photograph, although the photographer always has the last say in what is portrayed.

When I looked up these images I stumbled upon an article that has a completely different view on Arbus' work and has changed my look on her as well. In its conclusion it says: 

'Arbus might be the paradigm of the psychological portraitist, exploiting her subjects to a degree by utilizing them as sounding boards through which she could plumb the depths of her own psyche. Yet the psychological is seldom wholly divorced from the social, and Arbus surely recognized this, intuitively and artistically. She used this insight to create a gallery of American characters that, on perhaps narrower but no less epic canvas, echoes August Sanders' heroic characterization of Weimar Germany. Diane Arbus fashioned her own, cogent critique of American mores, enlivened by an absorbing inversion of finite sexual roles and gender imperatives. Her view was complex, highly individual, perhaps a little perverse, but never perverted - a sad moving testament to the human condition.'

(Diane Arbus: "Notes from the Margin of Spoiled Identity - The Art of Diane Arbus"  Gerry Badger (1988))

I don't feel I have the capacity to express my thoughts and gut feelings in the same way the authors of these articles have done. For now is most important to realize how quickly I'm influenced by different point of views and that also a critique is never objective and always made from a certain paradigm which might not even be suitable for making claims about the art that is discussed. 

Questions to ask myself:

1. How can I develop a way of thinking critically when reading these kind of texts and looking at art?

2. What are my inner drives and convictions to take photographs and how much do I let these drives rule the outcomes, or am I still working from other people's examples, or ideas of how photos are supposed to be taken?