In 1960, writing a postcard to her friend and mentor Marvin Israel, Diane Arbus (1923–71) worried that she was ghoulish. From an early age her photographs had recorded the marginalised and dispossessed, capturing the imperfections and frailties of humanity. She was a woman with a mission — scrutinising society and chronicling the damaged or eccentric, what she called ‘singular people’. She made square-format photographs of a startling clarity, but, despite her technical brilliance, her vision was dark and bleak. It comes as no surprise to learn that she suffered acutely from the devils of depression and that she committed suicide. The great empathy which informs her image-making in the end got too much for her. But before it destroyed her, it enabled her to produce a remarkable body of work which continues to move and disturb us.
Viewing an Arbus exhibition is not an unrelievedly joyous experience. It can be harrowing, especially when there are a couple of hundred images on display and many of them project a mood which is oppressive to the spirit. This is the largest Arbus retrospective yet assembled — many of the photos have not been publicly exhibited before — and it takes fortitude to give it the level of attention it deserves. The show opens with a bang: an anteroom of familiar top-quality Arbus images, such as the boy in curlers and a young Brooklyn family in their Sunday best. It’s 1966, it’s New York, and Diane Arbus is simply telling things as they are. After all, she’s celebrated for documenting what was happening, for a kind of ‘contemporary anthropology’, yet it takes a certain taste for the odd and grotesque to find oneself almost exclusively in their company.
The exhibition then backtracks to her earliest photos, such as the fire-eater at a carnival of 1956, and an even earlier interior with lamp and light fixture that the late lamented Patrick Caulfield would have relished. But already her interest in the grotesque is evident: a shot of a female impersonators’ dressing-room, a headless woman, ‘The Backwards Man’, Siamese twins in a carnival tent, ‘The Human Pincushion’. Even an image perhaps easy to explain quite rationally — ‘Woman on the street with her eyes closed’ — assumes a tragic intensity. The subjects grow stranger: a dominatrix with kneeling client, various nudists, an albino sword-swallower, a Jewish giant with his tiny parents. A couple of portraits — Norman Mailer flaunting his crotch and Borges looking minatory in Central Park — are hung alongside transvestites, a Mexican dwarf and a series on the mentally disabled. Arbus said, ‘I don’t press the shutter. The image does. And it’s like being gently clobbered.’ But just who gets clobbered? Her, the viewer or the subject? Perhaps all three.
The exhibition is effectively laid out (though, like most shows of this sort, it’s too large), with separate rooms built within the exhibition space to break up and pace the display. These hold archive material including cameras, notebooks and diaries, and add to the biographical interest while providing a welcome respite from Arbus’s photographs, which at times look altogether too much like a freak show. Usually with photography exhibitions it’s possible to recommend that the viewer stays at home with the catalogue and studies the reproductions. In this case, the large accompanying book, originally published by Jonathan Cape in 2003 to coincide with the start of this exhibition’s international tour, is rather more expensive than usual. The cover price is £60, but it’s being sold at the exhibition for £40. At that rate, it’s a lot cheaper to go round the exhibition a couple of times (full-price admission is £8) and exercise your memory. It might even be good for you, if you’re lucky enough to be emotionally resilient as well as crowd-resistant.
Another photographic exhibition has just opened, at Tate Modern this time, so I suppose it must be firmly classified as ‘art’. The Canadian snapper Jeff Wall (born 1946) has apparently ‘played a key role in establishing photography as a contemporary art form’, and for this supposed achievement is now honoured with an exhibition of some 50 of his photos, spanning 25 years. I wish photography was still photography and not art, but so much money has been poured into its elevation that it can never more be viewed in the same light as your mother-in-law’s holiday snaps. (Is, then, Diane Arbus’s work photography or art? You may well ask. Better to address the Tate’s Curator of Interpretation on that one.) In 1978 Wall made his first lightbox, and it is for large, back-lit, wall-mounted transparencies that he is now known.
It has to be said, they’re impressive: you remember them. And they can be very beautiful, but really all they offer is a contemporary take on 19th-century narrative painting. The Victorians did it all long ago, and with considerably more élan. But that’s typical of so much of today’s art — it’s a rerun of the past (often the very recent past), and rarely done as well as the original. Like the Victorians, Wall can also on occasion be silly, as in the stagily composed ‘A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai)’. His mise-en-scènes are carefully constructed, but humour is not their long suit, and he should beware the ludicrous. Recently, Wall has started to take large black-and-white photographs, as if to prove that he can do something else. The results shown here are revealing. Apart from one vast and rather grand image, ‘Night’, of derelicts sleeping or keeping watch, the images are less distinguishably his. They could be by any other photographer who works on such an overblown scale.
The show begins with ‘The Destroyed Room’, which looks like what Tracey Emin might have done to her bed in the Tate when she didn’t win the Turner Prize. It predates that event, however, by some 20 years. Three lightboxes from the 1980s, ‘The Bridge’, ‘Steves Farm’ and ‘The Old Prison’, show what Wall can do in the way of topography and social history, and very good they are, too. But then it’s as if he decided they were too beautiful, and that a little gritty human realism should be injected. So then the loonies are included in the frame, and the landscapes get less aesthetic. Grime and grot are more street-cred, while a handful of dried beans on a table plumb the depths of required meaning.
Jeff Wall is no doubt aware that sheer size impresses perhaps unduly, so he works also on a smaller scale, three examples of which are included here. A couple of studio sinks at odd angles are strangely evocative, but ‘Clipped Branches, East Cordova St., Vancouver’ has the edge on crumby atmospherics. Other subjects include heavily laden travellers humping their luggage across a concrete overpass, a desolate study in insomnia, and a dug-out and flooded grave, stocked with starfish and sea anemones. Elsewhere are two luxuriantly composed and surprisingly effective illustrations to texts — Kafka and Ralph Ellison — but too often these photographs look like travel posters lauding the ordinary and unconsidered. By contrast, in the last room is ‘Morning Cleaning, Mies van der Rohe Foundation, Barcelona’ (1999), a sumptuous and witty image, which demonstrates beyond question what a sophisticated formal and pictorial intelligence is actually at work here.