Assignment 2: Further research into themes + other artists!

Lets look at the theme of exploitation, and is there a link with Sally Mann then? At a first glance you would, looking at various sets from both photographers, that they fit into the theme exploitation. But the question is: Is it really exploitation?

Sally Mann’s work caused controversy in the public with some of her images, more specifically towards the almost nude pictures of her children. So what’s the difference between those of an adult and of a child? I think its how our society runs, with child nudes being seen as taboo and disgusting almost.

So if we go back to Diane, are her pictures of “the freaks” or those at the nudist camps exploitation as well? Again we come back to society. At the time, people saw those that worked in Coney Island indeed as freaks. They were essentially the outcasts of society, and the public would go to watch them for their entertainment and enjoyment, but probably secretly glad they aren’t in the same place. -> “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.” Diane Arbus [1]

So for Diane to present them as normal human beings, it’s outside the norm. With the subjects giving consent to have their pictures taken, it challenges us. Why? Because many of her pictures have the subjects looking right into the lens, as if their eyes are staring into ours. And hopefully what it makes the viewer do is that we can’t have the same viewpoint of our surroundings like the subject does.

So coming back to exploitation… Diane never set out to take add vantage of them. She said that “Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot…I just used to adore them.” Diane Arbus [2] And the plus that they all volunteered, it further pushes away from the idea that these pictures are here to exploit the subjects, or the general theme.

So if not exploitation, how else can we class the pictures? Well, perhaps these pictures move into a more intimate nature. And you make think how do these pictures meet that?

Well, lets look at it with regards to Elinor Carucci. If we look at Elinor’s book “Closer”, we instantly can see these as very intimate pictures. To be invited into her home, with her parents and fiancé, and to take a many nude pictures, we have to class them as intimate.

Carucci 1 [3]

So let’s go back to Diane. With her pictures from the nudist camps and freaks, on a face value we can see what is going on. But lets stop and think for a minute. What would we think if these pictures we see were different. For example, take the picture “Seated man in a bra and stockings.” From a picture like this, we get a very intimate idea of this person, who we know nothing about at all.

Now what would happen then if we saw the man, in exactly the same pose, but in normal clothes any man might wear on a normal day, say jeans, socks and a t-shirt. We then get a completely different idea of the guy, but it doesn’t become as intimate. Why? Because we are seeing a picture that represents a normal day in the lives of society for most.

So Diane crosses the line of the “norm”, the way in which how we should be seen in society. She takes bold pictures, which show the truth of the subjects, who have invited her into their very intimate lives. But it just doesn’t go for her pictures of “the freaks” but also those at the nudist camps. Because both sets were seen in a completely different light in her time, and to some extent today as well.  The people photographed normally would keep these things to themselves, only telling those closest to them with what they liked. As probably the fear of being seen as an “outcast” in society was too much of a pressure for them to handle.

So lets move towards the last theme, and perhaps the most interesting as it covers the last two. Power. As a photographer, we hold a huge amount of power over the subject, but when do we know if that power is being used too much?

Lets do another comparison of artists within in the same group. Lets look at Nicholas Nixon, but more specially his work “Patients.” On a face value when we just look at the pictures, I would say that Nixon is over using his power here to the point where we could say he is exploitation these poor people. But that’s without any information. When we read into it, this project is a continuation of his portraiture work and for us to see the problems these people face. So this raises the question on how is the power being used? For Nixon, he is using the power as a strong emotional response for the viewer.

I think Arbus has a lot of power in her pictures, but she uses it in subtle ways. In her magazine work, a lot of her pictures were based on more well-known (at the time) artists, writers and performers. So we can see them as more direct portraits that you would usually see a book, and obviously a magazine. So you could think well there is no power there at all. But yet I think there is, as Arbus is using her power of being the photographer and the camera to make these subjects look very good. She could take a straight up picture of the face, but it wouldn’t be “good” enough to feature. So a lot of power has to be used on the subject to make everything work.
But then we look at her more controversial, and well-known work, of the freaks and nudist. And in the direct opposite, straight up you say Arbus is using a lot of power to make these pictures. But let’s think about it for a minute. Yes, there has to be some power for these people to agree to be captured on film. But this is because they have built up a relationship with Arbus over many years to the point where they trusted her. And it’s this trust that they allowed to be photographed. So maybe we have to think that actually it’s the subjects that are holding more power here, as they can choose what to do.

So lets review Diane Arbus then with all these points about the themes considered.  She is seen as one of the best American photographers ever. Her work has, and to some is controversial pieces of work. Is she exploiting those in her pieces? For me, I wouldn’t class her as exploiting the subjects. For she is attempting to show what others had been taught to turn their backs from. She wants everyone to embrace the outcasts as part of our society. Its possible she was exploiting the themes of these sets possibly, seeing as where she lived she was in the mix of the more shady lifestyle. But I think a better theme that would fit her would be Truth, as that is what she really is trying to show in her pictures.

However after speaking with Matt, I said that there is too much information here to cover in just 10 minutes. With all these themes, I would need nearer 20-30 to get every last detail in! So I decided that for my presentation, I am going to focus more on exploitation as the main theme as it covers the other two as well. As well as this, I’m not going to look at all the artists. Rather, I am going to focus on how Diane’s work actually changed photography today, whilst using Sally Mann and Elinor Carucci as my main examples to highlight the change.

[1] Arbus, D, Untitled 1995, pg. 3 – ‘Freaks’ – Diane Arbus on Freaks
[2] Arbus, D, Untitled 1995, pg. 3 – ‘Freaks’ – Diane Arbus on Freaks
[3] Carucci, E, ‘Making Love, 1999’, Closer 2002, pg. 100


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