Friday, 17 April 2015

ARTIST ROOMS: DIANE ARBUS

Images of individuals that played with our collective understanding of the marginalised

Written by Deborah Nash
Deborah-Nash-colour-176Kirkcaldy is the only place in Britain where linoleum is still made, and the only place to have a museum, library and art gallery as part of a war memorial. The two are connected: lino manufacturer John Nairn commissioned their construction following the loss of his only son in the First World War.

Karin Hill, project coordinator for Fife Cultural Trust, is at the gallery to show me the 20 square-format, black-and-white photographs of American photographer, Diane Arbus (1923-71). Arbus was known for her portraits of individuals whose physical peculiarity transgressed what was considered ‘normal’.

Arbus’s images here include her best known: Russian midget friends in a living room, a Mexican dwarf in a hotel room, a Jewish giant at home with his parents, a pair of identical twins, a tattooed man at a carnival, a wild-haired, Medusa-like Puerto Rican with a beauty spot… Such is the power of their full-frontal composition and intensity of gaze one feels one has met them before, in a film, a fairy tale, a painting by Goya or Velázquez. One cannot help but speculate on their narratives, on who they were and what happened to them.

The curatorial approach to the exhibition downplays the eccentric and focuses instead on the political context of movements for equality, rights and recognition. In Young Man And His Pregnant Wife In Washington Square Park, NYC, 1965, a black youth sends out a diffident smile, his arm around his white wife, her upright beehive and cat-eye glasses suggesting a defiance and boldness of character. In the US, 1965 was the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Malcom X was assassinated and the Selma to Montgomery march took place. Says Karin Hill, ‘A mixed-race couple would still have drawn stares, so I think it’s extraordinary that Arbus was able to get that level of trust.’

That trust was earned; Arbus took time to get to know these people, in contrast to the utilitarian speed with which photographs are spat out today. She used a twin-lens reflex Rolleiflex camera that made possible eye contact with her subjects, imbuing her pictures with a sense of intimacy.

What led Arbus to society’s marginalised? ‘I think she was drawn because she dealt with depression most of her life,’ Hill tells me. ‘Her subjects have said she picked them because she saw something of herself in them.’

Since her suicide in 1971, Arbus’s subjects have grown up, lived and died and some progress has been made in equal rights legislation. With the passage of time, today’s viewer might read these images differently, captivated by the exotic and 1960s fashion and perhaps by glimpses of mysterious and close-up corners and adventures into unknown lives, in a world where secrets – then – were possible.

Until 31 May at Kirkcaldy Galleries, War Memorial Gardens, Kirkcaldy: 01592-583206, www.kirkcaldygalleries.org.uk



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