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The Disturbing Photographic Poetry Of Diane Arbus

In Arbus’ first major retrospective in France, Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris presents a selection of 200 works of the American artist who quite literally changed the "face" of photography.

Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park (1962)
Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park (1962)
Claire Guillot

PARIS -- "The world is full of fictional characters looking for their stories, " Diane Arbus once said. Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967 -- the picture that opens the Jeu de Paume exhibition — immediately confirms its author's opinion. Through her lens, these ordinary girls seem to come straight out of Alice in Wonderland: same clothes, same hairdo, they look eerily alike and even seem to share one arm. No wonder Stanley Kubrick cited them as the influence behind The Shining"s ghostly twins.

These two identical, yet unique beings create discomfort for the viewer: the portrait, far from unraveling the mystery of identity, only strengthens it. "Photography is a secret about a secret, the more it tells you the less you know," as Arbus put it.

It was high time France hosted a retrospective of this preeminent artist, who revolutionized the art of portrait in the 1960s, before committing suicide in 1971 at the age of 48. The last major international exhibition, "Revelations' in 2003, was not shown here.

This exhibition, although welcome, does not offer explicit help in the reading of Arbus' work: there is no text to accompany the images, no written summaries to explain the organization of the exhibition. "We wanted to focus on the public's personal reaction to the pictures," said Marta Gilli, director of the Jeu de Paume.

Two rooms at the end of the exhibition offer insights into the artist and her pictures. The 200 photographs presented are indeed glaringly raw. Diane Arbus chose to concentrate on non-politically correct subjects: transvestites, nudists, circus performers, giants, dwarves ... marginal people, light-years away from the environment in which the photographer grew up.

Born into a wealthy family of merchants in New York, Diane Arbus began as a fashion photographer, together with her husband Allan, in the 1940s. The job bored her to death. She only started doing what she wanted to at the age of 38, after she and her husband separated.

At first, her grainy pictures were populated by sad children. Her photography teacher -- Lisette Model, an Austrian immigrant known for uncompromising portraits of the poor and rich alike -- inspired her to address reality head-on. In 1962, Arbus chose to switch from rectangular pictures to square ones, thus leaving no room for context. And she started exploring the subjects that fascinated her: the "freaks," with their uncanny appearance. "Photography was a license to go wherever I wanted to go and do whatever I wanted to do," Arbus said.

Although she is best remembered as the "photographer of freaks," Arbus's talent was also her ability to challenge such labels, to blur the boundaries between what is normal and abnormal, between reality and fiction: the old lady with uncannily perfect hair, the young patriot with a pock-marked face in a pro-war parade, the baby mummified in its sleep. "We all look so incredibly and inevitably strange," Arbus told her students. The "freaks' are shown in their fragility and humanity, like in the picture of a Jewish giant, photographed in his beloved parents' living room in the Bronx in 1970.

Hunting for weakness

Arbus' most beautiful photographs are the most ambiguous ones, where she puts the subjects' identity and gender into question. She shoots a loving couple on a bench, and even though the woman is pregnant, the man is the one who seems effeminate. She takes a picture of a father and his son, the child's clothes make him look older than his father.

In 1963 and 1966, two Guggenheim fellowships allowed Arbus to make her own "comédie humaine": a considerable work on the "rites, manners and customs in the United States' collecting pictures of carnival parades, baby beauty pageants and dog shows. She also began to publish her work in Esquire and Harper's Bazaar magazines.

In 1967, a collective exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art heralded her consecration: her work was shown together with Lee Friedlander's and Garry Winogrand's. This exhibition --a manifesto entitled "New Documents'-- broke with photojournalism, and a broader humanistic vision of the postwar period. Of the three photographers, Arbus was the most noticed... and the most criticized.

For even if her work had since become canonical, the Arbus approach still shocked many. The feminist writer Germaine Greer told of the time she posed for Arbus in 1971, and how violent she found the photographer, leaning over her, only interested in her moments of weakness. Tracking down the flaws of her subjects, the photographer depicted the world as a tragic show, where characters played the parts against their will. It is an artist's vision, both brutal and poetic, which manages to find the strange always lurking just behind the ordinary.

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