Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Diane Arbus Reevaluated

In light of the new exhibit of Diane Arbus' work that is beginning it's tour at SFMoma currently, Slate's Jim Lewis takes a fresh look at her work.

Lewis makes some excellent points about Arbus. Her work has become overly familiar and in this time of Jerry Springer has lost much of its immediacy and shock. I remember first discovering Arbus in High School, when the freak show quality of her work was new and we still lived in a society where drag queens, downs children, and Jewish giants did generate a response.

Where I might disagree is with Lewis' assessment of her use of a Rolleiflex and the strictures that such a camera brings...

"Whether by convention or because of the habits of human vision, most pictures are rectangular - either portrait or landscape; but cameras like the Rolleiflex make square negatives, which tend to feel boxy and unnatural, an effect heightened by Arbus' tendency to shoot her subjects head on. It's a particularly unnerving way to make portraits, since it tends to leave the subject stranded in a picture field that bears no real relationship to the proportions of the human body. Moreover, the lenses on large-format cameras tend to be slower; natural light is often not enough to produce a good exposure. Arbus herself used a big bright flash, which produced deep shadows and a slightly garish shine on fleshy highlights. Again, the wide-angle lens she favored requires that the photographer be right up against her subjects - in some cases she seems to be jamming the camera in their faces - and it flares slightly at the edges, a fisheye effect that almost imperceptibly distorts the final image."

In my opinion, many of these aspects of working with a Twin Lens Reflex and 120 film are what make her work interesting. I would tend to take the same paragraph and put it in a positive context when it comes to Arbus' work. But that is a minor difference and comes more from the fact that I'm fond of the medium format. All in all it is an excellent piece that by no means dismisses the importance of Arbus, but takes a fresh look at her work with a 21st century eye.

The is also a slideshow of 11 pieces available.

Read the whole thing here.

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