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Notes from the Margin of Spoilt Identity – The Art of Diane Arbus By Gerry Badger (1988)

Notes from the Margin of Spoilt Identity – The Art of Diane Arbus by Gerry Badger (1988).

The above link will take you to the essay, Notes from the Margin of Spoilt Identity – The Art of Diane Arbus By Gerry Badger Published in Phototexts (1988)

Topless dancer in her dressing room, San Francisco, California. Arbus (1968)

Notes & quotes:

  • The purpose of Badger’s essay is to argue against Sontag’s opinions with regards to both Arbus’s work and Sontag’s opinion regarding the medium of photography.
  • Badger examines the issues of morality that Arbus’s photographs raise.
  • All photography is potentially exploitative, photographic portraiture is inherently exploitative.
  • Badger writes: Photographic morality is an issue of some complexity, particularly where the photograph involves people. For the camera is a liar of immense proportions, and yet a liar of immense plausibility. Every photograph is a fiction, constructed by the photographer.
  • Badger comments that and asks an interesting question: All photography is potentially exploitative, photographic portraiture is inherently exploitative. The potential for misanthropy invariably thrives whenever one human being has power and control over another…..Exploitation of subject by photographer might be viewed as a continuum, ranging from the mildest at one end to the grossest at the other. Can one therefore define, and quantify, a ‘benign’ as opposed to a ‘malignant’, an ‘honest’ as opposed to a ‘dishonest’ exploitation?
  • Badger answers : Any answers must be highly contingent, but can play their part in deciding whether we are dealing in a particular instance with photographic morality or lack of it. Few would seem to believe that the medium is wholly beyond redemption. Even Sontag, after roundly villifying all photographs for being morally equivalent – stating that the camera ‘annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibitions’ (1) – clearly views such figures as Walker Evans and August Sander as being on the side of the angels. Equally clearly, she views Diane Arbus as being indisputably on the side of the Devil.
  • Badger describing Arbus’s artistic background against Sontag’s opinion: Her whole being was shot through with Greenwich Village bohemianism, that nineteen-fifties New York art scene cocktail of surrealism blended with expressionism, spiced with narcissism and sponteneity, a lifestyle and an artistic philosophy that conceived of the world as a succession of spicy stimulii to the senses rather than as an imperative for moral action. However, to suggest that Arbus’s predatory penchant wholly dominates the ethos of the work is, I submit, a mistake.Diane’s craving for the hunt, her unabashed revelling in the thrills of the chase, seems no greater nor lesser an impulse than that of any artist in search of a subject. Going out into the field, entering lives for a brief while and then leaving them, was necessary for the work. That is the nature sometimes of the artistic quest, but it is a nature wholly condemned by Susan Sontag: ‘Being a professional photographer can be thought of as naughty, to use Arbus’s pop word, if the photographer seeks out subjects considered to be disreputable, taboo, marginal… Photographing an appalling underworld (and a desolate, plastic overworld), she had no intention of entering into the horror experienced by the denizens of those worlds. They are to remain exotic, hence ‘terrific’. Her view is always from the outside… Arbus was not a poet delving into her entrails to relate her own pain but a photographer venturing out into the world to collect images that are painful.’ (2)
  • Much of the negative criticism of Arbus focuses, in one way or another, upon her aggression.
  • Badger believes Arbus has been unfairly criticised that: Much of the negative criticism of Arbus focuses, in one way or another, upon her aggression. Firstly, there is her presumed aggression towards her subjects. This is usually characterised as extreme, an easy indictment to make, since Arbus violated, or rather extended the canons of acceptable distance between photographer and model by frequently moving in perilously close. However, since almost all of her images were made with her subjects’ consent, the charge must be levelled indirectly. This is effected by maintaining that the aggression of Arbus was disguised by soft words and careful dissembling. It was, in short, aggression by stealth, a typical strategy of many photographers.Arbus’s subjects face the camera stiffly and bravely, often, it would seem, seeking to assuage any doubts with a frank stare. Mostly, they seem in full, if somewhat uneasy acquiescence with the photographer. But, say the detractors, they could hardly know what Arbus was doing. Her ‘victims’ were duped, evidently with some suspicion on their part, but generally left unawares that they indeed were victimised by a thoroughly unscrupulous predator.
  • Badger suggests that there may be a motivation to Arbus’s subject matter that most critiques have missed. That Arbus’s intention was to not to simply use ‘shock and awe’ but to try to make readers of her photographs, stop and think along social lines: Almost every commentator on her work mentions the division of Arbus subjects into two groups, one, the chosen – middle class, Middle America, relatively affluent – and two – the misfits, the poor, the racially stigmatised, the physically handicapped, the psychologically disturbed, the sexually deviant. She constructed, in the words of Ian Jeffrey, ‘a perverse parody of a social structure.’(3) Jeffrey is, I feel, unduly harsh in his choice of the adjective ‘perverse’, but he is one of the few critics to suggest a potential reading of Arbus along social lines. Few have viewed this clear labelling of types in Arbus as an invitation for sociological speculation. Fewer still have asked if Arbus may have intended to make comparisons between social groups.
  • Arbus liked the work of George Grosz and Badger suggests that Grosz’s satirical work may have influenced Arbus’s photographic style, with a satirical: Yet one interesting parallel to Arbus, occasionally mooted by critics, is George Grosz, that savage chronicler of Weimar Republic mores. Arbus herself, from an early age, admitted to a liking for his work. Certainly, there is little doubt that Arbus could be resolutely fearsome when she desired, utilising the caricaturing power of the camera to satirise quite as cruelly as Grosz. She may not have been especially politically minded, and in no way active in political life, but in her images of political demonstrations, such as Boy with a straw hat waiting to march in a pro-war parade, NYC (1967), we would seem to be given an unequivocal statement of her viewpoint, at least on that singular issue. We are given a clear demonstration of just who she considered a ‘freak’, just who was beyond the pale and a worthy target of deprecation. Here, a tentative link with Grosz would seem apparent.
  • An interesting quote that Badger refers to: Stanford Schwartz has observed, ‘the nugget of reality in a photograph will always subvert the photographer’s intentions.’(4)
  • Badger argues that Sontag was blind or ignorant to the camera’s deadpan reality that left photographs open to how much or how little the viewer reads into the image. Badger refers to Sontag’s comment: She states, for example, that Woman with a veil on Fifth Avenue, NYC (1968) is ‘characteristically ugly’,(5) a conclusion that would seem to have been prompted by the closeup clarity of the woman’s rather fleshy face as rendered by electronic flash. But is Sontag reduced to such a blindly literal view? ‘When you photograph dwarfs, you get dwarfs.’ (6)
  • Badger questions Sontag’s motivation in her criticism of the photograph: Woman with a veil on Fifth Avenue, NYC (1968), he writes: Is it simply her own prejudice that causes her to equate ageing with ugliness, and promotes an unwarranted misreading of this, and by implication many other Arbus images? Does Sontag’s own imagistic naivety cause her in turn to accuse Arbus of an ill intentioned naivety? For in my view the veiled woman of Arbus is rather handsome. Sontag might have pondered how Richard Avedon might have treated such a subject. As Alfred Appel Jr. has noted, we may presume that ‘this woman’s cultural expectations are positive’.(7) Indeed, the image would seem to be about confidence and privilege rather than ageing. The image’s formal qualities, the mixture of sensuous textures, of fur, lace, and glistening skin, speak of affluence and smugness, not mortification and decay. Arbus has commented, certainly, but she has not ‘uglified’, nor savaged unduly. I know of few photographs which parody better the self-satisfaction of a particular kind of American bourgeois matron, a critique which, as Sontag notes accusingly, might be personally motivated on the part of the photographer.
  • Badger argues that by just looking at the three photographs of Topless dancer in her dressing room, San Francisco, California. Arbus (1968); Boy with a straw hat waiting to march in a pro-war parade, NYC (1967) and Woman with a veil on Fifth Avenue, NYC (1968) we might see three widely differing rhetorics in the photographer’s expressive armoury.Firstly – savage satire. Secondly – firm but not cruel disapprobation. Thirdly – warm, collaborative irony.
  • Badger suggests that the collection of photographs used for this exhibition and the subsequent book of Arbus’s work could easily have been critiqued differently if the title of the book and exhibition had been The Americans or American Photographs tempering our formalist/ psychological reading with one more related to the social documentary.
  • Badger: To be outside the dominant societal groups, or at odds with the dominant ideologies, is to be marked as being apart.
  • Badger: To be seen to ‘challenge’ the norm is to be stigmatised, accorded the position of outsider.
  • Badger: The clues or symbols we are asked to decode in Arbus’s pictures relate consistently to issues of normalcy and freak. Time and time again in her work, by means of deliberate inversions and finely calculated absurdities, by drawing and then subverting boundaries between stigmatised and non-stigmatised, Arbus gave voice to, yet also mocked the often ridiculous struggle we put up in order to bridge the gap between intention and realisation, between acceptance and non-acceptance.
  • Badger: She focused particularly upon the sometimes grotesque efforts in which we indulge in order to mitigate life’s iniquities and inequalities, honing in upon those institutions of mutual comfort, the club and the tribe. She concentrated upon the often perverse and arcane rituals each ‘club’ – even a club of one – evolves to protect its identity, rituals expressed most vividly in costume and uniform, which both display and yet mask the true nature of the tribal identity. Ritual and costumes outwardly define a role, but Arbus nagged constantly at the sham of many of the roles which we adopt.
  • Badger: Her vision was racked with a continuous sense of falling short in life. We are frustrated because we have chosen the wrong role in life, or more frequently, because the wrong role has chosen us….Her view of society, of the innate destiny of humankind, is as profoundly bleak and as jaundiced as that of her twin mentors, George Grosz and Lisette Model. Even Arbus’s babies are tainted, bearing the marks of life’s vicissitudes to come, losers from the outset.
  • Badger: There seems little doubt that Arbus was inquisitive, acquisitive, voyeuristic to a degree, and certainly aggressive in her pursuit of images. Even when invited, she invaded the psychological space of her subjects to an alarming degree.
  • Badger Arbus clearly had a compulsion to tell her story, probably a greater compulsion than most of her unknowing subjects. However, the story she had to tell about herself could also be told about her subjects – a story of alienation, loneliness, sadness, resilience, and courage. And here, she was surely with her subjects rather than against them.
  • Badger agrees partly with Sontag regarding the evidence of rebellion, guilt and revenge from a seriously disturbed ‘little rich girl’ as a result of her problematic private life; but Sontag’s comments that Arbus was very much an outsider Badger suggests is more complicated. He states that Arbus kept an artist’s detachment, that of consciousness and intent. But Badger maintains that there is enough evidence to suggest that Arbus had a lot psychologically in common with some of her subjects and was, perfectly situated to empathise fully with her sitters.
  • Badger suggests that Arbus adopted the male role of staring: Arbus ‘went against nature’ by usurping a typically male role, the Baudelairian flâneur, the urban ‘stroller’. For Baudelaire, the flâneur was the epitome of contemporary urban man, casually strolling the city pavements, carefully maintaining both his anonymity and psychological distance in the crowds, taking in the myriad acts of street theatre with the disinterested eye of the practised voyeur.
  • Badger also suggests that as female photographer her portrayals of women in her portraits were much kinder than those to the men. The women she photographed either as strong or maintaining their femininity the men on the other hand all appear weak or feminine.

Boy with a straw hat waiting to march in a pro-war parade, NYC (1967)

Woman with a veil on Fifth Avenue, NYC (1968)


  1. Sontag, S (1977), page 41.
  2. Ibid. page 13, page 42, and page 40.
  3. Ian Jeffrey, Diane Arbus and American Freaks, in Studio International (London), March 1974, Vol. 187, No. 964. Page 134.
  4. Sandford Schwartz, A Box of Jewish Giants, Russian Midgets, and Banal Suburban Groups, in Art in America (New York), November/December, 1977. Page 68.
  5. Sontag, S (1977), page 37.
  6. Ibid. page 29.
  7. Alfred Appell Jr., Signs of Life (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1983). Pages 128-129.

Published by shauncn512659

Hi, I am an OCA student studying for an Art degree in Photography , my student number is 512659. My e-mail is:

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