Tagged susan sontag

diane arbus and susan sontag: America seen through photographs, darkly

Susan Sontag wrote on Diane Arbus in her seminal essay America, seen through photographs, darkly, in which Arbus’ vision is forcefully and evocatively examined. Below are excerpts from Sontag’s masterful and unparalleled analysis, exhibiting Arbus as a complicatedly humanist, voyeuristic, privileged, artist, admirer and documenter of “freaks”, children, couples, performers, disability and nonconformity.

 

Instead of people whose appearance pleases, representative folk doing their human thing, the Arbus show lined up assorted monsters and borderline cases—most of them ugly; wearing grotesque or unflattering clothing; in dismal or barren surroundings—who have paused to pose and, often, to gaze frankly, confidentially at the viewer.  Arbus’s work does not invite viewers to identify with the pariahs and miserable-looking people she photographed. Humanity is not “one.” The Arbus photographs convey the anti-humanist message which people of good will in the 1970s are eager to be troubled by, just as they wished, in the 1950s, to be consoled and distracted by a sentimental humanism. There is not as much difference between these messages as one might suppose.

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Teenage couple on Hudson Street, N.Y.C., 1963
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Blaze Starr in her living room, Baltimore, Md., 1964
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Triplets in Their Bedroom, 1963

The most striking aspect of Arbus’s work is that she seems to have enrolled in one of art photography’s most vigorous enterprises—concentrating on victims, on the unfortunate—but without the compassionate purpose that such a project is expected to serve. Her work shows people who are pathetic, pitiable, as well as repulsive, but it does not arouse any compassionate feelings. For what would be more correctly described as their dissociated point of view, the photographs have been praised for their candor and for an unsentimental empathy with their subjects. What is actually their aggressiveness toward the public has been treated as a moral accomplishment: that the photographs don’t allow the viewer to be distant from the subject. More plausibly, Arbus’s photographs—with their acceptance of the appalling—suggest a naïveté which is both coy and sinister, for it is based on distance, on privilege, on a feeling that what the viewer is asked to look at is really other. Buñuel, when asked once why he made movies, said that it was “to show that this is not the best of all possible worlds.” Arbus took photographs to show something simpler—that there is another world.

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A family on their lawn one Sunday in Westchester, N.Y., 1968
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Untitled 7, 1970-1971
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Four people at a gallery opening, N.Y.C., 1968
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National Junior Interstate Dance Champions of 1963, Yonkers, N. Y.

The photographs of deviates and real freaks do not accent their pain but, rather, their detachment and autonomy. The female impersonators in their dressing rooms, the Mexican dwarf in his Manhattan hotel room, the Russian midgets in a living room on 100th Street, and their kin are mostly shown as cheerful, self-accepting, matter-of-fact. Pain is more legible in the portraits of the normals: the quarreling elderly couple on a park bench, the New Orleans lady bartender at home with a souvenir dog, the boy in Central Park clenching his toy hand grenade.

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Transvestite at her birthday party, 1969
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Seated female impersonator with arms crossed on her bare chest, N.Y.C., 1960
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Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C., 1962

 

For Arbus, the camera photographs the unknown. But unknown to whom? Unknown to someone who is protected, who has been schooled in moralistic and in prudent responses. Like Nathanael West, another artist fascinated by the deformed and mutilated, Arbus came from a verbally skilled, compulsively health-minded, indignation-prone, well-to-do Jewish family, for whom minority sexual tastes lived way below the threshold of awareness and risk-taking was despised as another goyish craziness. “One of the things I felt I suffered from as a kid,” Arbus wrote, “was that I never felt adversity. I was confined in a sense of unreality…. And the sense of being immune was, ludicrous as it seems, a painful one.” Feeling much the same discontent, West in 1927 took a job as a night clerk in a seedy Manhattan hotel. Arbus’s way of procuring experience, and thereby acquiring a sense of reality, was the camera. By experience was meant, if not material adversity, at least psychological adversity—the shock of immersion in experiences that cannot be beautified, the encounter with what is taboo, perverse, evil. Arbus’s interest in freaks expresses a desire to violate her own innocence, to undermine her sense of being privileged, to vent her frustration at being safe. Apart from West, the 1930s yield few examples of this kind of distress. More typically, it is the sensibility of someone educated and middle-class who came of age between 1945 and 1955—a sensibility that was to flourish precisely in the 1960s….

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A Flower Girl at a Wedding, Connecticut, 1964
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Teenage boy on a bench in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962
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Untitled (8), 1970-1971
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South Bay Singles Club, couple on a chaise lounge 1970
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Albino sword swallower at a carnival, M.D., 1970

Arbus is an auteur in the most limiting sense, as special a case in the history of photography as is Giorgio Morandi, who spent a half century doing still lifes of bottles, in the history of modern European painting. She does not, like most ambitious photographers, play the field of subject matter—even a little. On the contrary, all her subjects are equivalent. And making equivalences between freaks, mad people, suburban couples, and nudists is a very powerful judgment, one in complicity with a recognizable political mood shared by many educated, left-liberal Americans. The subjects of Arbus’s photographs are all members of the same family, inhabitants of a single village. Only, as it happens, the idiot village is America. Instead of showing identity between things which are different, everybody is shown to look the same.

Susan Sontag ‘On Photography’ 1973, electronic edition published 2005 by RosettaBooks LLC, New York

Full essay available here

 

 

looking on at robert frank’s ‘the americans’

Ed Ruscha writes “[Frank’s] achievement could not be imitated in any way, because he had already done it, sewn it up and gone home. What [he] was left with was the vapors of his talent. I had to make my own kind of art. But wow! The Americans!” Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’, published in 1958, was highly influential in post-war American photography.

Frank writes in U.S. Camera Annual (1958) “with these photographs, I have attempted to show a cross-section of the American population. My effort was to express it simply and without confusion. The view is personal and, therefore, various facets of American life and society have been ignored. The photographs were taken during 1955 and 1956; for the most part in large cities such as Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and in many other places during my Journey across the country….

I have been frequently accused of deliberately twisting subject matter to my point of view. Above all, I know that life for a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference. Opinion often consists of a kind of criticism. But criticism can come out of love. It is important to see what is invisible to others—perhaps the look of hope or the look of sadness. Also, it is always the instantaneous reaction to oneself that produces a photograph…

My photographs are not planned or composed in advance and I do not anticipate that the on-looker will share my viewpoint. However, I feel that if my photograph leaves an image on his mind—something has been accomplished.”

 

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Men’s room, railway station, from The Americans by Robert Frank
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Detroit River Rouge Plant, 1955 from The Americans by Robert Frank
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Funeral – St Helena, South Carolina, 1955 from The Americans by Robert Frank
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Parade Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955 from The Americans by Robert Frank
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Drive-in-movie, Detroit, 1955 from The Americans by Robert Frank
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Detroit, 1955 from The Americans by Robert Frank
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Car Accident – U.S. 66 between Winslow and Flagstaff, Arizona, 1956 from The Americans
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Belle Isle, Detroit, 1955 from The Americans by Robert Frank
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Trolley, New Orleans, 1956 from The Americans by Robert Frank
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Main Street – Savannah, Georgia, 1955 from The Americans by Robert Frank

jack kerouac on frank

“That crazy feeling in America when the sun is hot on the streets and music comes out of the jukebox or from a nearby funeral, that’s what Robert Frank has captured in these tremendous photographs taken as he travelled on the road around practically forty-eight states in an old used car (on Guggenheim Fellowship) and with the agility, mystery, genius, sadness and strange secrecy of a shadow photographed scenes that have never been seen on film… After seeing these pictures you end up finally not knowing any more whether a jukebox is sadder than a coffin”

Kerouac also said on Frank that “he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.”

Susan Sontag in ‘On Photography’ posits ‘Americans feel the reality of their country to be so stupendous, and mutable, that it would be the rankest presumption to approach it in a classifying, scientific way… One could get at it indirectly, by subterfuge – breaking it off into strange fragments that could somehow, by synecdoche, be taken for the whole.’

john berger and susan sontag on story-telling

In their 1983 Talk to Me (which can be seen here), artist and art critic John Berger and writer, philosopher, essayist and filmmaker Susan Sontag deliberate each other’s, and articulate their own, versions and definitions of the art of story-telling.

Sontag claims that at the ‘very centre of the whole enterprise of story-telling there is the fact that story-telling is an activity that faces in two directions’: truth, on one hand, invention on the other. Berger posits that the story ‘sits somewhere between fiction and truth’ but must, for him, begin as truth.

Berger believes that story-telling is fundamentally a merging of subjectivities, specifically, three subjectivities (of the story-teller, the protagonists, and the reader) in necessary connection and relation to each other.

Sontag disagrees. She claims that, as a writer, she cannot feel the subjectivity of the reader. Perhaps this lends itself to the fact that she believes that there is a distinction between hearing a story and reading one, critiquing the foundation upon which Berger’s story-telling tradition relies.

Berger posits an oral experience in which subjectivity originates and exists, using the analogy of a child listening to a story and experiencing a cooperative subjectivity of being both teller, listener, and participant of the story. Sontag believes that there is a distinction between listener and reader, between literary and oral, modern and primal traditions. Sontag elaborates on her disagreement with Berger’s subjectivities by suggesting that once people began to write stories down, moving beyond oral transmission, they began to write ‘different kinds of stories’ altogether, that there was a ‘radical break with the oral tradition’, that the art of writing is not just an ‘addition of art’ but an ‘expansion’. Writing allows more for the story-teller. To write down is to expand and modify what can be said due to the resources of print. It’s far richer to ‘read with the eyes as opposed to hear with the ears’, she says.

Berger believes that regardless of whether a story is heard or read, the reader makes constant jumps. Like a film or montage, there is a constant process of editing in the art of storytelling. Subjects change from sentence to sentence and we, as reader or listener, are constantly relocated. We are continuously carried elsewhere as the story unfolds. And this exercise from the writer depends on how they believe the reader or listener will react. They make constant assumptions and these assumptions are eventually taken for granted, and a kind of complicity is born between listener and speaker, reader and writer.

For Berger, story-telling is a ‘rescue operation’, or a shelter ‘against that endless terrifying space in which we live’, or as he also calls it, the Absurd. For Sontag, story-telling ‘enlargens our imagination’ instead, and introduces us to the terrifying space, the Absurd, in which we live.

Check out the full conversation here.