Monday, February 01, 2010

Photographers: the unappreciated artists

Have you ever visited someone else's Flickr photostream and wondered why they've got so many rave comments, while you didn't have any ? Eg. 200+ comments attributed to the same photo eliciting oohs and aahs from various users around the world. Each observer has a different feel or perceptions regarding a photo. It's just normal for photographers to attach a high value to particular images of their creation, only to become frustrated or unaccepting when other viewers do not share the same admiration for their work.

Diane Arbus, I believe was one of those who felt truly dejected when she was alive. During her most prolific years, many critics hated her controversial work. Her motivation was this: I truly believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them. Hence she went on to take images of transvestites, awkward children, or even a giant in their most depraved state: naked, vulnerable, or even afraid. Some ethical questions were posed when whether it was appropriate to take photographs of miserable, drunk, crippled, mad and desperate people.

One of her most famous images was of a Jewish giant in the presence of his parents. He towers over them, and the couple appear afraid to see this monstrosity in their home. But in actual fact, her original contact sheet showed this family to be truly at home, loving and caring for each other. But she didn't choose the conventional, loving pictures that most of us would. She instead chose to show them at their worst.

Take another image of this boy with a toy hand grenade in the park. His expression is almost maniacal, his right hand clenching the hand grenade was the fingers in his left hand are clawed. Arbus captured this photograph by having the boy stand while moving around him, claiming she was trying to find the right angle. The boy became impatient and told her to "Take the picture already!"

This contact sheet shows the rest of the photos that resulted from the shoot with the boy, but she picked the one which had the most impact to her viewers.

Other than that, Arbus was very skilled at portraiture. She managed to draw out the character of the person with great detail, even in difficult lighting conditions.

This image of a woman with a veil in New York illustrates this fact, and it is lighted impeccably.

Tattooed man at a carnival - 1970.

But alas, when Arbus was 48 in a depressed state, she committed suicide by swallowing some pills and slashing herself with a razor. As with some artists at that time, her work was shelved, never to be seen again until 33 years later when her works started to be exhibited all around the world in American and European cities, with the addition of several publications. It's cruel, but as they say, the artist doesn't live to see his rise to fame.

Alexander Eliot has this to say in his review, Looking Again Through Dark, Avid Lens of Diane Arbus(Washington Times, January 4, 2004):

She was a true artist in the highest sense. In order to pursue her destiny, Diane required a little money, and a little fame—but that’s the only reason she sought them. And her few successes, in the practical sense, were more or less obliterated by successive riptides of defeat. Most of the magazine editors for whom she worked exploited Diane, paying rock-bottom fees, and even declining to reimburse her painfully modest expenses. As a fragile, female free-lancer who was totally unequipped for, and unaccustomed to, the rude, rough-and-tumble of professional existence, she suffered severe, humiliating attrition throughout the last, best years of her career. Something soon upset the delicate balance that made Diane’s intimate and yet cruel art worth living to create. What was it? That’s not for me to guess. . .”

In conclusion, my good friend David, always speaks out the heart of the artist : Shoot what you feel! Not what you think you want to show others. Since when you really shoot for your own self? Do you always have to seek approval from others?




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