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America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly, Diane Arbus and a Gluten-Free Cake

Part of my SCAD class agenda was also this photography history course entitled suggestively Critical and Theoretical Approaches to Photography since 1945: Issues in Contemporary Art. Here, I had the opportunity to read about the most interesting photographic theories, styles, critics, and to analyze and reflect on few of the most important issues of that time. One of my favorite text was Susan Sontag’s  “America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly” from her 1977 book “On Photography”. For those of you who don’t know Sontag, she a brilliant American philosopher, essayist, and author. Her work has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, Art in America, to name a few. She wrote an essay in 1973 entitled “Freak Show” (originally published in The New York Review of Books) that was critical of Arbus’ work; it was reprinted in her 1977 book “On Photography”.

Today I want to go more in depth on presenting in equal terms Sontag’ stance and mine, in regards to Arbus’ body of work and the perspective of photography in that time, through her essay “America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly”. In this essay, Sontag presents visions of contemporary American photographic culture and analyses Arbus’ body of work. Sontag starts by drawing an analogy between our early perception of depicting idealized images and Walt Whitman’s theory of seeing beyond the difference between beauty and ugliness, importance and triviality. In the early years of photography, photographs were idealized images, they needed to be about something beautiful, but starting with 1920, photography has changed from depicting lyrical subjects to exploring pain, idealizing depicted images and searching for the beauty in them.

Sontag claims that the act of photographing means to confer importance, thus any subject can be beautified due to inherited tendency to accord value to subjects. Value can be altered in function of culture and history, and everybody can be a celebrity, as Warhol claimed. Walker Evans – a documentary photography pioneer – was one of the lasts to work in the Whitman humanism theory, in his work each person photographed becomes a photograph equally to any other of his photographs. His photographs were detached, having an literary tradition embodied in them, holding on a deep democratic viewpoint and exhibiting a universal humanity. His bleak and noble photographs would bring up forms of beauty that have been ignored, aggrandizing Whitman’s humanist theory. In his 1971 catalogue retrospective at MOMA, Evans chose Whitman’s words as epigraph:

I do not doubt but the majesty and beauty of the world are latent in any iota of the world…I do not doubt there is far more in trivialities, insects, vulgar persons, slaves, dwarfs, weeds, rejected refuse, than I have supposed…I do not doubt interiors have their interiors, and exteriors have their exteriors—and that theeye-sight has another eye-sight, and the hearing another hearing, and the voice another voice.

Either in “Subway Rides” or “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Evans’ outlook remains the same: firm, frontal, making use of anonymity and vectorial motifs to draw the life of a humanity.

Family of Man” exhibition (1955) was also employing the Whitmanesque theory, showcasing humanity as one. No matter the age, race, classes, we are all identifying in one, we all share same nature, but differences, injustices, conflicts, fail here to be shown.

Sontag brings in discussion Arbus’ body of work exhibited in 1972, in which all of her photographs look the same, in the sense that the subject matter imposes a feeling of grotesque sameness, contrary to Steichen curated exhibition in 1955. Evolving from generalizing beauty to exploring the anti-humanism, Arbus’ work is documenting people on the fringes of society and is finding the astonishing in the commonplace. The reality of photographic culture has changed, as people were pleased to identify themselves “in one” with Steichen’s exhibition, at the time that Arbus’ work becomes popular, people were ready to be troubled by the ugliness of reality.

Sontag affirms that Arbus’ photographs push the viewer to be closer to her subjects, by asking them to see the other reality, a reality that’s lacking beauty and which is inside this one. Arbus was photographing freaks she found in New York, Maryland carnivals, nudist camps in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, mental hospitals and daily life. Arbus’ observation was that everybody has that thing where they need to look one way, but they come up looking another way, and this pushed her aesthetic exploration.

Sontag argues that Arbus is choosing oddity to make so-called normal people look abnormal, by associating mental illness with any subject. Arbus was identifying with her subjects in a strange way, and was exploring the flaws, the dissociate point of view her subjects had, putting aside the compassion and bringing forward empathy. She was exploring the gaps between intention and effect – what people want others to know about them, and what they can’t help others knowing about them, but not beauty. Photographing freaks was an excitement for Arbus, making her feel a mix of shame and odd, because she was a firm believer that you know they [freaks] know something you don’t.

The stillness of Arbus’ photographs comes from her influence on her subjects and the trust that subjects were showing to her. She was photographing freaks because they passed their test in life, they already lived with their drama. Sontag shows that Arbus was eventually not completely denying the Whitmanesque theory, when she was letting her subjects to reveal themselves, treating equally each moment. She was frontally portraying each one, the contradiction between the awkwardness of the moment and the subject’s surrender, is bringing equal essence each time.

Sontag shows also the stance of Arbus in relation with the underworld, the act of photographing freaks being an act against boredom, an insight taken from the outside, a desire to break prohibitions. Arbus arise against conventional and safe, in favor of hidden and ugly, attributes she found in the underworld or Middle America. Acceptance of these contrasts as normal happens when awkwardness becomes a public zone. People become immune to suppressed when they get use to it.

If you don’t know yet Diane (Dee-ann) Arbus’ work, go and familiarize yourself with, is all worth it. As I was recommending in my previous post, her daugther Doon, is introducing a short documentary in which she speaks about Diane’s practice, anxieties and stance on photography. That short film is also worth watching, this essay being a reflection on Sontag’s text and equally Diane’s lecture. And meanwhile watching that, just enjoy this simple gluten-free chocolate cake I’ve prepared here, in Atlanta, to sweeten up a bit this stressful and extremely busy midterm week. xoxo

Chocolate cake Chocolate cake B Chocolate cake C