Friday, 22 May 2009

"I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn't photograph them." - Diane Arbus

Thinking back at when I studied photography, *cue Hovis ad music* and yes I can remember that far back, there are always one or two images from prolific photographers that particularly re-appear in my mind's playback facility. Whether I liked the photographs or not, their power or impact obviously tattooed themselves into my subconscious.

One such image was Diane Arbus' photograph: Child with Toy Hand Grenade. It's bizarreness intrigued and fascinated me, I wanted to comb every inch of the print with my eyes. But it also made me want to stride down the lecture room, pull the slide out of the machine and throw it out the window into the path on oncoming escaped wildebeests.

A photograph that draws such a conflicted set of emotions certainly put a firework up my artistic undercrackers. The scrawny boy is pulling a gruesome face, he looks utterly strange; he's stood in an American park, his stance is odd and uncomfortable, his clothes ruffled. He's holding a toy grenade in a bizarre fashion, he looks agitated. Everything about the image seems wrong, and yet a lot of it seems right too. It's an image I've never forgotten, and I've never truly deciphered why I loved and yet also pretty much despised it.

It was with joy that I saw this very image at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, last week, where the Diane Arbus exhibition is on display until August.

Diane is one of the most famous female contemporary photographers in the world. And a controversial one. Her images capture people, normal people in settings and surroundings we all recognise and relate to. Yet her talent was in making the normal look...anything but. They are packed with connotations and tensions.
In fact, some of the profiles make the subject look out of this world; it is as if Diane had uncovered a rock from an undiscovered land and released it's alien inhabitants scuttling into our society. It is this conflict of normality and the bizarre that draws and yet also repulses you. They are a fascinating insight into the (alleged) less desirable members of society, highlighting the way people mask their reality, as well as displaying the fact that appearances are deceptive.

Some claimed Diane's images were exploitative and demeaning. And you can understand this view point, particularly with her set of 'untitled' images, of people with mental disabilities. You begin to question the reasoning, whether the subjects were able to make a judged decision over allowing their images to be taken.
You even begin to question your own feelings to feeling this way. Am I being demeaning and patronising towards the subjects by questioning Diane's reasoning in the first place? Quite probably and very possibly. Which for me, makes the images all the more interesting.

But what draws me in particular to Diane's work is not necessarily the photographs themselves, but her ideology behind it, her thoughts on photography as a whole, on how she wanted to use it as medium. As soon as I read her thoughts and quotes, it was as if two loose and lost wires in my head had finally become connected again, allowing the circuit to flow.

'I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn't photograph them.'
'My favorite thing is to go where I've never been.'
'A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.'

These particular quotes struck such a chord, the internal mind strings have been strumming along ever since. Whilst I am obviously no where near Diane's level (she being Everest, me being a mole hill in the back garden), I've long been fascinated in photographing the unusual and in particular the abandoned, inanimate objects that people have dumped or disregarded. I have always been interested in how photography reveals nothing and poses more questions, something which I explored extensively in my 'Memories of my Nan' photography project. And I like nothing more than discovering new places or things/objects under your nose to snap.
I love photographing things people wouldn't normally, 'conventionally' want to photograph. I particularly see a melancholic beauty in derelict buildings, which to me, is actually as picturesque as a Brecon Beacon landscape. An image of a derelict building conjures, to me, so many emotions and questions and possibilities, it makes my imagination water. And yet nothing is ever answered. Tantalisingly.
To read Diane's thoughts was an odd and yet wonderful experience. I now don't care how bad or good I am at taking an image, I enjoy viewing the world this way, and it is reassuring that we actually all see things so differently. Otherwise life would be so 2D, and we might as well jack it all in and become Zelebrity-Zobsessed-Zombies. [Pretentious mode/]

It is sad Diane committed suicide so young, like many talented artists and musicians (and alarmingly like so many of my idols), you are left wondering about the work that was never done, just as much as the wonderful achievements already accomplished.

Go and see the Diane Arbus exhibition. It is a remarkable set of images that will have a lasting impression on anyone who sees it. And you may well find yourself feeling rather conflicted. You may chuckle. You may want to cry. You may feel turned off. You may feel inspired. Just don't try to throw any images out of the window and towards any stampeding wildebeest. Or if you do, just don't tell anyone where you got the idea from and let me photograph it.

BBC article on the exhibition in Wales.
My Memory Photo Project
Urban Exploration - My derelict asylum images

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