Diane Arbus and her ‘freaks’

Hevey then looks at Arbus. Since Arbus was drawn to marginalised people, and specifically those with physical or mental disability, she is a photographer who I also wanted to examine, and will probably return to in the course of this project. Hevey points out that two major critics on Arbus (Sontag and Bosworth) accept the ‘factual’ recording of disabled people as freaks without question, even citing Sontag’s use of the words ‘pathetic’, ‘pitiable’ and ‘repulsive’ but that Arbus’s images do not arouse compassion. Sontag is even quoted as asking “Do they see themselves, the viewer wonders, like that? Do they know how grotesque they are?” Hevey also mentions Bosworth’s observation that Arbus was ‘gentle and patient’ with them, but nobody seems to be concerned about how they felt about being photographed or how those photographs appeared or were perceived; the disabled person’s voice is conspicuously absent. This is something I need to consider in my work – that the subjects themselves have a voice; that they feel empowered about how they are portrayed and what the final project will look like.

Sontag mentions the fact that rather than getting her subjects to act naturally, Arbus actively encouraged them to pose awkwardly, thus exaggerating their freakish Otherness and giving them the appearance of caricatures or “images of themselves“, while staring directly into her camera makes them seem “even odder, almost deranged” (1977, p 37). Halberstam (2011) also notes Arbus’ tendency to make everyone in her photographs appear “strange and distorted” calling her a “solipsistic voyeur rather than a talented photographic artist” and concurs with Sontag that:

Arbus’s photographs of transvestites, midgets, and dwarfs do present the world as a freak show and parade queer and ambiguous bodies in front of the camera to illustrate the range and depth of freakish alterity.” (2011, p 103)

Or, in the words of Shelley Rice, Arbus “seemed to be looking for the mark of Cain, for tragedies that are destinies, and which test not only the limits of the individual but of society itself” (2001, p 25).

Hevey points out that in discussions of Arbus’s work, disabled people are lumped together as ‘freaks’ (which is where he draws the word ‘enfreakment’ from), and posits that this may be because Arbus has avoided showing her subjects as victims, or attempting to arouse compassion in the viewer. Hevey states that Arbus did not view her subjects as social equals, but in some way their journey into oblivion was a shared experience, a living death they were expected to inhabit. The disorder she saw as symbolic, representative of disorder in society as a whole rather than in the individual (what he refers to as the Richard III syndrome)! In this way she was reacting against the harmony and idealism of consumer society and Steichen’s utopia. Despite using her subjects positively, to represent something other than themselves, Hevey remarks that “she considered her projection to be more important than their reality” (p 370) meaning that it was her take on things that was always primary, the subjects did not appear to have a say. Hevey often uses the word coerce, and it is clear that he feels Arbus was quite forceful even aggressive in her approach, alluding to the fact that she would go to any lengths to get a shot (he mentions that she agreed to ‘spend the night’ with one of her subjects, and it is clear what he assumes took place between the parties).

Hevey deconstructs Arbus’ body of work into 3 distinct periods, with her photographic style transforming as her approach to the subject matter changed. The first period is illustrated by her images of ‘dwarfs’. She ‘normalised’ them by placing them in bourgeois settings, and this is the shock reaction she evoked: “The “horror” of Arbus’s work is not that she has created Frankenstein but that she moved him in next door! What is more, the freak had brought his family!” (p 370) suddenly that which was previously segregated and kept hidden behind closed curtains was on public display, albeit in the subculture setting of the circus. They confront the viewer with their freakiness, and seem to be proud of themselves, contrary to the images of disabled people that audiences would have been used to seeing, “compassionate victim images of disabled people obligingly subhuman and obligingly institutionalized as “tragic but brave“” (p 370). Hevey points out the eroticism in the image of Morales the dwarf, which must have appeared doubly shocking to Arbus’s audience, while the Russian family of midgets must have made them think of eugenics.

Hevey talks about Arbus’s exploration of the segregation/non-segregation double bind, that she dared portray her subjects in non-disabled settings was a challenge since they quite obviously required segregation or institutionalisation (Hevey suggests that Arbus saw this as “common sense“). Just how much of Arbus’s real intent and motivation Hevey can assume to know is an issue that I have with many of her critics, all of whom seem to cite her bourgeois, privileged upbringing and her rebellion against those Victorian values as being the central theme underlying her body of work.

The second phase Hevey sees as being manifested in her portrait of the Jewish Giant at Home with his Parents in the Bronx, NY. The change in approach and style Hevey sees as being part of her broader philosophy about the gulf between how people imagined themselves and how they were actually perceived. As such, Arbus was not interested in this subject’s story, but more interested in the mother’s apparent horror as she looks up at her son: “You know how every mother has nightmares when she’s pregnant that her baby will be born a monster? I think I got that in the mother’s face as she glares up at Eddie, thinking, ‘OH MY GOD, NO!‘ ” (Arbus 2012, p 120). How are we to understand this, then? Was the giant really unaware of the effect his spectacle would have on people? I find that hard to believe. Or was it the fact that Arbus knew the giant fairly well before taking this shot, and understood that he was just a ‘normal person’ underneath his deformity.

The atmosphere is added to by the Weegeesque stark flashlight, giving the picture the feel of a “found specimen of urban horror”, as Hevey observes “Arbus, as an ex-fashion photographer, knew what she was doing in using technical disharmony as an underwriting of the narrative disharmony“. What is also apparent is that the subjects no longer return the gaze of the camera/viewer. Although the body language of the dwarf was threatening in its normalcy, the giant’s body language is more threatening since he is pictured in a living room with his ‘normal’ parents; the effect of the child towering over them antithetical to the family album snapshot that the image would otherwise be if he had not been born a giant. This incongruity Hevey says is Arbus’s attempt at “avenging the control and repression in her own family“, which he says is “the key to her use and manipulation of isolated disabled people“. Once again, how much of this is author conjecture will never truly be known since Arbus cannot answer for herself.

Arbus spoke of her work with deformed people in a strange mixture of condescension and admiration:

Freaks was [sic] a thing I photographed a lot. It was one of the first things I photographed and it had a terrific kind of excitement for me. I just used to adore them. I still do adore some of them. I don’t quite mean they’re my best friends but they made me feel a mixture of shame and awe. There’s a quality of legend about freaks. Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you riddle. Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.” (Arbus 2012, p 3).

Hevey gives the giant a name, Eddie Carmel, and mentions that he and Arbus communicated for at least a decade before this shot – indeed, Hevey seems to be informed that Carmel told Arbus about his ambitions and hopes, which is just the kind of information that I want to include in my project work – and Arbus’s betrayal of that confidence, what Goldman (1974) referred to as dishonesty and misplaced trust, “a compulsive cheating, made by someone who had the upper hand” (p 35) (which is what I want to avoid).

In another episode of conjecture, Hevey posits that Arbus saw her own body and sexuality as the site of her power, but that she was confused as to her bisexuality (“sex itself probably failed to resolve her feelings of aloneness and fragmentation”) and as such she “sought the answer to this dilemma in locating bodily chaos in all her subjects (to varying degrees) and felt she’d found it in its perfect form in disabled people” (p 372). To my mind, this is an emotional response from a disabled person to photographs of disabled people that he views as being oppressively and coercively taken. If this were truly the case, surely Arbus’s body of work would feature only deformed bodies, including those that had been scarred or deformed physically later on in life?

The third period in her work Hevey describes is when she was shooting images of people with Down Syndrome (or as she calls them ‘retardees‘). He claims that these images show a further shift away from ‘conscious frontal participation’ of the subjects. A quick look at the images Hevey is speaking of is enough to convince me that he has not really engaged with them. Apart from the first one here (which is the one he describes in particular detail in his essay) the other images show the subjects in fact posing for the camera!

Although he does have a point when he says “they are barely engaged with Arbus/the viewer as themselves” since they are playing games, dressed up or hiding their faces behind masks – which I think was of a particular fascination for Arbus, since she believed that we all wore masks of some kind. Here are mentally impaired adults resorting to the same ruse, some kind of disguise or alter ego! Although according to the author, the visual dichotomy that Arbus was exploring in her photography was undermined, since the clothes and paper masks that the subjects are wearing match, rather than challenge, their bodies. As if alluding to the direct cause of the photographer’s suicide, Hevey points out her alleged despair: “Arbus’s order-chaos paradoxical projection has not happened. Instead, Arbus sees zombies in another world…” the author goes on to suggest that Arbus

…had met “the limits of her imagination”; she had not found in these images the catharsis necessary for her to continue. Arbus first loved then hated this last work. She entered a crisis of identity because these segregated people with Down Syndrome would not perform as an echo of her despair.” And finally “Arbus’s camera became irrelevant not only for disabled people, but for Arbus herself. This was her last work before she killed herself.” (p 373)

That is where the author leaves Arbus, as if to punctuate her story, her body of work, and underlining the fact that although Arbus sought to subvert the illusions that people projected, when faced with mentally handicapped people she was left quite at a loss, powerless one might say, and this despair spiralled into self-destruction. As often happens in critical analyses of a photographer’s body of work, there tends to be a greater emphasis placed on the biography of the photographer cited as motivating factor or underlying psychology behind the images produced. Though I do not deny the importance of an artist’s psychological condition in forming their approach, it seems to me that there can also be too much significance attributed to it. Hevey appears to want to exact posthumous revenge on Arbus for daring to photograph disabled people, to make a spectacle of them. As such, this part of the essay reads more as a condemnation of Arbus than a rational analysis of her images of disabled people.

An apologist for Arbus is A.D. Coleman, who wrote the following about the impact of her work in a MoCA catalogue essay:

“[Arbus’] work is not infrequently characterized as a reverse sideshow, with “normal” people presented as freaks and abnormal people as heroes. If that’s the case, then one must also recognize that she anticipated an important cultural evolution: where the physically abnormal and differently abled were then subjected to systematic neglect and abuse, and consequently often chose to hide from the world, we now have Danny DeVito as a major movie star, a long-running TV show featuring a boy with Down’s syndrome, the Special Olympics, closed-caption television for the hearing impaired, increasing wheelchair accessibility everywhere, and the People with Disabilities Act. I interpret all of these as signalling a change for the better in our culture’s relationship to those once considered problematically different, and though I don’t attribute all of that to Arbus I do think that with her work, which reached the widest audience achieved by any of those under discussion here, she contributed notably to that shift” (Coleman 2000, pp 9-10)

This is an interesting angle on Arbus’ work; critics usually portray her as preying on innocent people and emphasising their difference or ‘freakishness.’ Here the author clearly credits Arbus with being instrumental in our acceptance of disabled people in the mainstream.

In another essay on Arbus, Badger (1988) proposes that her photographic imagery has been grossly maligned, and that this might have a lot to do with the fact that she was a woman encroaching on male territory, as well as how her oeuvre was entitled. Although he concedes that “the very potency of her images, their dangerous, disturbing allure, demands an almost instantaneous moral judgement on the part of the viewer” this does not necessarily mean that her work is perverted, that she is the epitome of immorality or “caters ineffably to the disinterested voyeur lurking in us all.” He encourages taking a fresh look at her body of work, “less in terms of a series of individual, stylistically related images, and more in terms of a cogent entity,” and believes that Arbus appears less perverse than many of her detractors suggest, but more of a social commentator in the vein of Frank and Evans before her. Indeed, there are overlapping themes of alienation, surrealism, mocking bourgeois complacency (épater le bourgeois) and exposé of the stark realities underlying the myth of the American dream. Her work is continually exploring the distinction (or lack of) between normalcy and freak, by probing the depths of what she saw as the gap between intention and effect, she makes the normal appear freakish and the freak appear normal, thus blurring the distinction and making us understand that we are all freaks in some way (which would have somewhat irked Sontag’s Edwardian sensibilities!).

Although Sontag saw characteristic ugliness in this portrait of Woman with a veil on 5th Avenue, NYC (1968), Badger sees the woman as ‘handsome’, while “the mixture of sensuous textures, of fur, lace, and glistening skin, speak of affluence and smugness, not mortification and decay.” Does Sontag’s critique of the image reveal more about her own prejudices and fears about ageing? Should her comment that “When you photograph dwarfs, you get dwarfs,” be more appropriately phrased as “When I look at photographs of dwarfs I see dwarfs.” As such, could Arbus’ images be considered as a kind of Rorschach test, a psychological evaluation not of the photographer but of the viewer?!


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