Who Is Normal? The Strange Beauty of Diane Arbus

Man in hat, trunks, socks and shoes, Coney Island, NY, 1960, by Diane Arbus

Man in hat, trunks, socks and shoes, Coney Island, NY, 1960, by Diane Arbus

‘You see someone on the street, and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw.'
Diane Arbus

I recently attended an excellent exhibition of the early work of photographer Diane Arbus. (‘Diane Arbus: In the Beginning’ is at The Hayward Gallery, London until 6 May.)

Diane Nemerov was born in New York in 1923. Her parents owned Russek’s, a Fifth Avenue department store, and she grew up in some comfort. At 18 she married her childhood sweetheart, Allan Arbus, and soon after she took up photography. For just over a decade the Arbuses ran a commercial photography business, with Diane contributing as stylist and art director. In 1956 she quit and began life as an independent photographer.

'My favorite thing is to go where I've never been.'

Arbus wandered the streets of New York searching for subjects. She was drawn to Central Park, Times Square and Coney Island; to bars and barbershops, the subway and snack bars, movie theatres and the morgue.

'Nothing is ever the same as they said it was. It's what I've never seen before that I recognize.'

Arbus was fascinated by human frailty and eccentricity. Perhaps what we take for ordinary may be worth a second look. Here’s a slim kid with a toy hand grenade, a teenager in a monster mask, a uniformed usher by the box office, an elderly lady in a mink stole. Parents carry sleeping children. Here’s an anxious man yelling in the street, a couple arguing - snarling, eyes bulging - a mannequin in an evening gown.  The world seems somehow crooked, distorted, out of joint.

‘I am full of a sense of promise, like I often have, the feeling of always being at the beginning.’

Arbus’ pictures suggest stories that are just beyond reach, incomplete narratives that are about to begin. A down-at-heel Santa Claus walks the city streets. A boy in an ill-fitting boater wears a ‘Bomb Hanoi’ badge.  An elderly Uncle Sam looks depressed and tired in his tatty apartment. 

'If you scrutinize reality closely enough, if in some way you really, really get to it, it becomes fantastic.’

Arbus is also interested in our relationship with entertainment. She photographs the TV and the cinema screen: a blonde about to be kissed, a screaming woman with blood on her hands, a man being choked to death. She is particularly drawn to the world of stage performers and circus sideshows. She introduces us to trapeze artists, strippers and cha cha dancers; wrestlers, fire eaters and female impersonators. A clown in a fedora. We meet ‘The Human Pincushion’ and ‘The Jungle Creep.’ Andy ‘Potato Chips’ Ratoucheff gives us his Maurice Chevalier impersonation.

'A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.'

In the past some critics expressed suspicion of Arbus. Is she just giving us a ‘freak show’? Is she exploiting the vulnerable? Is she lacking empathy or compassion?

Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, L.I. 1959, by Diane Arbus

Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, L.I. 1959, by Diane Arbus

I suspect that 2019 eyes have a quite different response. Arbus is clearly curious about the margins of conventional society. But she is neither judgemental nor sentimental. She takes people for who they are, revealing their essential humanity. Her pictures have a strange beauty.

'I work from awkwardness. By that I mean I don't like to arrange things. If I stand in front of something, instead of arranging it, I arrange myself.'

I left the exhibition concluding that we are united by our flaws and foibles, our kinks and quirks. We all have idiosyncrasies. They’re what make us attractive, what make us human.

‘The thing that’s important to know is that you never know. You’re always sort of feeling your way.’

In the communication industry, we are constantly considering core consumers and bull’s-eye behaviour. We like to determine average users, typical targets. But these calculations often take us to the anodyne, bland and boring. They represent a filtered reality, an edited truth.

Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962  , by Diane Arbus

Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962 , by Diane Arbus

Arbus asks us to think again: Who is normal?

Surely in 2019 normal is diverse, irregular, bizarre and offbeat. It is strange and peculiar, different and contradictory, shifting and changeable. Normal is whatever we want it to be.

I’m reminded of a line I recently heard from jazz futurist Kamasi Washington: 

‘Diversity is not something to be tolerated, but something to be celebrated.’

In 1971 Diane Arbus took her own life. She had been suffering from depression, an illness that had also afflicted her mother. She was 48 years old.

In one of her pictures from 1960 a homeless man in a shabby overcoat, trilby hat and zip-up sweater holds a dollar bill to the viewer. It is as if to say: 

‘What’s this for? Is it really worth it?’ 

 

No. 223

Photography as Feeling: Don’t Hide Behind the Tools and Technology

Don McCullin  The Guvnors in Their Sunday Suits

Don McCullin The Guvnors in Their Sunday Suits

'Seeing, looking at what others cannot bear to see, is what my life is all about.'
Don McCullin

I recently attended an excellent retrospective at Tate Britain of the photographer Don McCullin (until 6 May).

Born in 1935, McCullin grew up in a two-room flat in Finsbury Park, an area that had been battered by war and poverty. His father died when he was 14 and he had to leave school to support his family. He bought his first camera when he was on National Service, and he took to photographing North London’s gangs, tearaways and immigrants. Some of his pictures were picked up by The Observer newspaper.

'I fell in love with photography accidentally – it chose me, I didn't choose it.'

In 1964 The Observer commissioned McCullin to cover the civil war in Cyprus.

A running man in a raglan coat, with a peaked cap and Stenn gun, casts a crisp shadow in the Limassol sun. Two dead men lie in a pool of blood on the cool tiled floor. A child grasps his despairing mother by the hand. The soles of four corpses look out at us from the back of a Land Rover. These are scenes of Biblical sadness.

Don McCullin  ‘The Cyprus Civil War’

Don McCullin ‘The Cyprus Civil War’

'Cyprus left me with the beginnings of a self-knowledge, and the beginning of what they call empathy. I found I was able to share other people’s emotional experiences, live with them silently, transmit them.'

Soon McCullin was off covering wars and civil strife all over the world for The Observer and The Sunday Times. The Congo, Biafra, Vietnam, Cambodia, Northern Ireland, Bangladesh, Beirut, Iraq, Ethiopia - the conflicts that dominated our news bulletins for over half a century. Unflinching, he examined pain, fear, cruelty, death and grief; he exposed the realities of war, the starvation, shell shock, looting and torture; the dark fruits of this bitter earth.

He worried that he was becoming addicted to hostilities.

'I used to chase wars like a drunk chasing a can of lager.’

But McCullin had a strong sense of moral obligation, of duty to report what he saw.

'You have to bear witness. You cannot just look away.'

Of course, continuous exposure to human suffering and inhuman cruelty came at a price. McCullin was troubled by doubts, haunted by nightmares.

'I am tired of guilt, tired of saying to myself: ‘I didn’t kill that man on that photograph, I didn’t starve that child.’'

Periodically McCullin took assignments in the UK. But even here his conscience drew him to ‘social wars’- to document the poverty, inequality and deprivation on our doorsteps. He observed the homeless in London’s East End; considered the effects of industrial decay in Bradford, Doncaster and Wigan; captured the harsh economic realities in Hartlepool, Liverpool and Sunderland.

Homeless men stand around the fire, sleep amid the litter. Heads down, eyes shot, faces grubby, hands knotted. Kids play in the rubble, unemployed men forage for coal, a courting couple take a drag on a cigarette. Parkas, prams and flat caps. Cold rooms and damp walls. England ‘laughing in the face of defeat’.

'Photography is the truth if it’s being handled by a truthful person.'

Don McCullin  Gangs of Boys Escaping CS Gas Fired by British Soldiers

Don McCullin Gangs of Boys Escaping CS Gas Fired by British Soldiers

If you’re familiar with photographers, you’ll know that they like to discuss their equipment: lenses and light exposure, apertures and aspect ratios. I was quite struck by McCullin’s inclination to focus on human qualities.

‘The photographic equipment I take on an assignment is my head and my eyes and my heart. I could take the poorest equipment and I would still take the same photographs. They might not be as sharp, but they would certainly say the same thing.’

Indeed McCullin describes his craft as a matter of feeling rather than technical expertise.

'Photography for me is not looking, it's feeling. If you can't feel what you're looking at, then you're never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.'

There’s a lesson for us all here.

In creative professions we often hide behind the tools and technology; the gear and gadgets; the arcane language and expert jargon. But the best practitioners are often characterised by their humanity; their feeling for others; their empathy.

A recent BBC documentary (‘Don McCullin: Looking for England’) followed the photographer on a tour round his home country.

‘I’m never bored by trying to discover what makes me tick and this country tick.’

In Eastbourne he comes across a bunch of intrepid old folk in anoraks - watching a brass band play, eating sandwiches in the rain.

‘Terrible weather,’ says McCullin to one of them.
‘But the show must go on’, comes the reply.

This tickles McCullin. He can barely hold himself together. He wipes a tear from his eye.

'This bitter earth,
Well, what a fruit it bears.
What good is love,
That no one shares?
And if my life is like the dust,
That hides the glow of a rose.
What good am I?
Heaven only knows.

Oh, this bitter earth,
Yes, can it be so cold?
Today you're young,
Too soon you're old.
But while a voice
Within me cries,
I'm sure someone
May answer my call.
And this bitter earth
May not be so bitter after all.’

Dinah Washington, ‘This Bitter Earth’ (Clyde Lovern Otis)

 

No. 219 

 

Gursky and the ‘Democratic Perspective’: Learning to Look Before We Leap

Tokyo Stock Exchange

Tokyo Stock Exchange

‘I am interested in the ideal typical approximation of everyday phenomena – in creating the essence of reality.’

I recently attended an excellent exhibition reviewing the work of Andreas Gursky (The Hayward Gallery, London, until 22 April).

Since the early 1980s Gursky has been creating photographic images that prompt us to consider humanity’s relationship with nature, our impact on the world and each other.

'I am never interested in the individual, but in the human species and its environment.'

Gursky has shown us people dwarfed by the vast natural world around them; the complex interaction between man and machines; the elaborate infrastructure of our industrialised landscape; the curious beauty that sometimes occurs when humanity imposes itself on the world; and the wholesale damage we have done to our planet and environment.

His monumental images present us with the swarming energy of the Tokyo Stock Exchange; the complex choreography of an F1 pit-stop; the dehumanising effect of a Vietnamese furniture factory; the tribal abandon of a gigantic Dortmund dancehall. He gives equal weight to the Tour de France and Toys R Us; to supermarkets and skyscrapers; to autobahn, airport and Amazon warehouse.

Salerno I

Salerno I

Gursky reflects on the world with a cool detachment. He seems withdrawn, rational, objective. Perhaps he is asking us to think rather than feel; to properly consider the systems, patterns and relationships that rule our lives and shape our world.

'I stand at a distance, like a person who comes from another world.' 

Gursky’s work often employs advanced digital and post-production techniques. He uses cranes, sophisticated software and satellite cameras. His images are carefully orchestrated and arranged.

‘Reality can only be shown by constructing it… Montage and manipulation bring us closer to the truth.’

This inclination to convey constructed rather than documentary reality resonates with us in the commercial world. We are generally comfortable with artifice and abstraction, distillation and editing, if they serve to communicate a brand essence or human truth.

We could nonetheless learn something from what Gursky calls his ‘democratic perspective.’ He consciously creates images that are uniformly sharp and clear. There is none of the foreshortening or depth of field to which we are accustomed from conventional photography or image making. Everything is high-def, hyper-real. Everything is in focus.

‘Figuratively speaking, what I create is a world without hierarchy, in which all the pictorial elements are as important as each other.’

As a result when we regard a Gursky image, and get past the initial sense of wonder, our eyes roam freely, exploring every detail, examining every corner.

By contrast, when we in the field of marketing and communications consider a sector, we tend pretty quickly to apply instinct and intuition to the data that presents itself to us. We hastily seek narrative, purpose and direction. We rush to find a focal point.

Sometimes perhaps we leap too soon.

Over the years I sat in a good many creative reviews with John Hegarty and I was struck by his tendency in the early stages of the process to be open-minded about different routes and possibilities. He’d let teams run with a variety of thoughts, exploring diverse avenues and approaches. He seemed reluctant to close things down too quickly. At the outset he had a ‘democratic perspective.’ Only later in creative development did he settle on a particular theme and idea. Only then did he demand singular focus.

Utah

Utah

I’m sure strategy works the same way. When we embark on a task we would do well to allow ourselves time to consider all the options; to explore and experiment; to review the whole picture, the panorama of perspectives; to look before we leap.

But, having said all this, we should never be slave to the method. We should always listen to our instincts.

In 2017 Gursky created a work inspired by an image taken on an iPhone through the window of a moving car. ‘Utah’ depicts homes, sheds and caravans at the freeway’s edge, speeding past us as we proceed on our way. They are largely out of focus. They are all a blur.

No. 171

 

 

Eggleston: The Poetry of Normal

William Eggleston,   Untitled   (Girl with Red Hair, Biloxi, Mississippi), 1974

William Eggleston, Untitled (Girl with Red Hair, Biloxi, Mississippi), 1974

‘The idea of the suffering artist has never appealed to me. Being here is suffering enough.’
William Eggleston

There’s a fine exhibition of photographic portraits by William Eggleston running at the National Portrait Gallery in London (until 23 October).

Born in 1939 in Memphis, Tennessee, raised in a well-to-do household in Sumner, Mississippi, Eggleston was shy and laconic, guarded and private. Self-taught and self-sufficient, he developed an affinity for free spirits, local bourbon and antique guns. He dressed like a Southern gentleman and caroused like a rock musician.

Eggleston took up photography at university. From the mid ‘60s he experimented with colour, and in 1973 he embraced a dye transfer printing technique, which hitherto had been the realm of commercial magazines and advertising. As a result his colours are rich, vibrant, intoxicating. We are seduced by the vivid yellows and pinks, the deep reds and blues; the bold tones of manmade fibres, floral prints, formica and leatherette. They sing out above the flat umbers and olive greens of the enduring rural South.

 

Untitled, .1974 by William Eggleston

Untitled, .1974 by William Eggleston

‘I photograph democratically…I don't have any favourites. Every picture is equal but different.'

Eggleston’s style seems informal, casual even. By 1976 he was abandoning his viewfinder and shot as if firing a gun. He photographed ordinary people in the bar, at the diner, in the parking lot; regular folk at the counter, at the phone kiosk, on the travelator; waiting in the car, striding along the sidewalk, seated by the kerb. There’s a young woman with a Heineken, a businessman with a burger, a singer with a cigarette. We see the elderly lady on her garden chair, the office worker in his lunch hour, teenagers on a date. We see a lone old man sitting on the edge of a bed, with a drink, with a revolver.

Eggleston’s subjects look straight at us, through us and past us. They stand and stare; they sit and watch; they turn to one side. They seem lost in thought, alone, even though they’re with us.

It seems a world of doubt, regret, indecision and detachment. But maybe it’s nothing of the kind. We want to know the stories that attend the images; the befores and afters. But Eggleston denies us this narrative. He leaves his subjects untitled, unidentified, unknown.

'A picture is what it is, and I've never noticed that it helps to talk about them, or answer specific questions about them, much less volunteer information in words. It wouldn't make any sense to explain them. Kind of diminishes them…I mean, they're right there, whatever they are.’

Untitled, c.1970 (Devoe Money in Jackson, Mississippi) by William Eggleston

Untitled, c.1970 (Devoe Money in Jackson, Mississippi) by William Eggleston

Although by no means the first serious photographer to shoot in colour, Eggleston’s exhibition at New York’s MOMA in 1976 is widely recognised as a watershed moment for the genre. At the time there was fierce criticism of his work from a photographic establishment that was looking for meaning and message. The New York Times described it as ‘the worst show of the year.’ His choice of everyday subjects was felt to be banal, boring and bland. His informal, spontaneous style was labelled ‘snapshot chic.’

But these are the very factors that make Eggleston’s work compelling. There is a mystery in the mundane, a simplicity in the spontaneous, a beauty in the bland.

 

Untitled, c.1970 (Marcia Hare in Memphis, Tennessee) by William Eggleston

Untitled, c.1970 (Marcia Hare in Memphis, Tennessee) by William Eggleston

‘I am at war with the obvious.’

In the field of commercial creativity we should feel affinity for the ordinary and everyday. Ours is a world of small choices and regular habits. Eggleston teaches us that, if we look close enough, we will see, and if we think hard enough we will feel; that we should seek merely to amplify the truth, to intensify it with considered gaze and vibrant colour; that there’s no need to resort to excess and exaggeration, superheroes and superstars.

As for myself, I’ll take the bland and banal every time. Give me small and inconsequential rather than grand and meaningful. Give me repetition and routine rather than fireworks and fun. It’s the poetry of normal.

Last week I gave a little money to a woman outside Waitrose. With her cropped hair and harem pants, she seemed earnest and a little concerned. ‘Would you like a book about the structure of the universe?’ she asked. ‘No, thank you. I need a new packet of Tuc biscuits.’

No. 100

Sometimes Truth Is Out-Of-Focus

'What is focus - and who has the right to say what focus is the legitimate focus?'
Julia Margaret Cameron

It’s two hundred years since the birth of the experimental photographer Julia Margaret Cameron and there are two exhibitions in London celebrating her work. (The V&A until 21 February; The Science Museum until 31 March)

Although Cameron came to photography late in life (she first took up a camera at the age of 48), she was a pioneer in the understanding of photography as an art form. Most of the early enthusiasts regarded photography as a science that should concern itself with accuracy and precision. Cameron aimed to ‘record the greatness of the inner as well as the outer man.’

Certainly many of Cameron’s portraits have an intimacy that still resonates today. She shot in profile or face-on, making astute use of lighting and shadow. Her sitters have a stillness, a seriousness, that suggest the private, individual, interior life. It’s as if she’s caught them on their own in a room looking in the mirror.

Cameron came in for a good deal of criticism from the Victorian photographic establishment for the perceived ‘mistakes’ in her work. There were blotches and swirls resulting from the uneven application of chemicals and smearing when the plates were wet. And many of Cameron’s images were slightly out-of-focus.

Mrs Herbert Duckworth

‘What in the name of all the nitrate of silver that ever turned white into black have these pictures in common with good photography? Smudged, torn, dirty, undefined and in some cases almost unreadable, there is hardly one of them that ought not to have been washed off the plate as soon as its image had appeared.’
The Photographic News

Cameron believed that her technically flawed images conveyed greater emotion, truth and impact. And some of the more enlightened critics of the time agreed.

‘Mrs Cameron was the first person who had the wit to see her mistakes were her successes and henceforward to make her portraits systematically out-of-focus.’
Macmillan Magazine

The state of being in-focus is of course a technical matter. But it is also something that is socially determined; something that is felt.

In a fabulous scene from Woody Allen’s 1997 movie, Deconstructing Harry, a camera crew is having problems shooting the actor Mel, played by Robin Williams. After inspecting their lenses, they conclude that there’s nothing wrong with their equipment. It’s Mel that is out-of-focus.

‘Mel, I don’t know how to tell you this, but you’re soft. You’re out-of-focus…I want you to go home; and want you to get some rest. See if you can just sharpen up.

I have a lot of sympathy for Mel. Sometimes we just don’t seem to be in tune with everyone else. We’re out of step, misaligned. Sometimes we feel out-of-focus.

Could the communications and marketing industries learn from Julia Margaret Cameron? Would we ever willingly seek to be out-of-focus?

We are for the most part cursed by an obsession with polish and perfection. But this very finesse may diminish our ability to communicate authenticity, integrity and emotion. Conveying truth is not the same as conveying fact. Facts are hard, precise, unyielding. Truth is a matter for intuition, interpretation and imagination.

We could also learn from Julia a singularity of purpose, a determination in the face of critical pressure.

My mother was a keen amateur painter. She worked in oils using a palette knife, a method taught by the TV artist Nancy Kominsky (Paint Along with Nancy was a big deal in the UK in the 1970s). I once came across her painting a series of seagulls on a rock. There were four or five of them all in a line, pointing in the same direction. It looked to me as if they were queueing for a bus. I told mum that this wouldn’t happen in nature; that things are less regimented in real life. She told me she didn’t care. This was the picture she wanted to paint.

No. 65