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Photography can make us all freaks

“The camera has the power to catch so-called normal people in such a way as to make them look abnormal. The photographer chooses oddity, chases it, frames it, develops it, titles it.” –Susan Sontag, “America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly”

arbusSontag’s statement is poignant. Photography has the power to dissect moments out of life – out of time, which is fluid; out of character, which is round – and make them flat, static documents. Photography can take anything that in the flow of life is unremarkable, and make it mean something. Who doesn’t yawn during a meeting? If a photographer were to capture that moment, the photograph would forever imply that that you were bored with your job, disrespectful of your colleagues, and a social failure. The photograph does not come with a well-rounded narrative of how you stayed up late the night before compiling that report so that your boss would ace her presentation and still got up to make lunches for your children in the morning. John Berger made the incredible observation that “the photograph offers irrefutable evidence…yet it tells us nothing of [its] significance” (“Appearances” 86).

As Sontag pointed out, “Anybody Arbus photographed was a freak” (512). Photography can make us all freaks, and that seems to be a dynamic that some photographers capitalized on in the period of street photography of the 1950s and 60s. The critics of their genre remarked on the commodification of the Other. Diane Arbus and later Richard Avadon boosted their notoriety as photographers using a similar subject matter and attitude of the beauty of tragedy. Arbus’ work was rebellious. Avadon’s more blatantly commercial, but then so was America by the 1980s.

The ethical sticking point is that they seemed to be selling the freak show thrill, or “a voyeuristic charge” that allows the viewer to feel fortified by the fact that “we” are not “them.” (Bolton 265) “Behind Avedon’s control of the subject can be found the control of an entire class,” Bolton wrote (266). The same could be said of Arbus.

In various contexts throughout history, photography has had to wrestle with it’s association with abstract objectivity and the idea that all visual information is innocent – it’s a mere recording of a moment. The photographer as the recorder is just performing a mechanical act; he is making a document. But photographers bring subjective motivations and views of the world that come from their own lives, their place in history, their zeitgeist.

1950s and 60s street photographs differed from documentary photographs of the 1930s in that they were not focused on social issues as part of an American Dream agenda. There was widespread suffering during the depression. By the 1950s and 1960s suffering had a different face – identified with certain neighborhoods, classes and races. In addition, formalism had given photographers other aims. Some street photographers, such as Evans, Cartier-Bresson, and Winogrand embraced formalism, while others such as Frank and Arbus rejected it. However, they all seemed to see photography primarily as a form of expression, even while “documenting” a fragment of life. They were not documenting for social or journalistic purposes. They were exploring various “personal” viewpoints of life as expressed in photographs. There was a spirit of rebelliousness and cynicism that may have been a reaction to the sentimentality of the 1950s Life magazine photography.

Sontag’s position on the failure of Walt Whitman’s vision for America may seem grim, but her point that both “sentimental humanism” and anti-humanism “render history and politics irrelevant,” is astute. “One does so by universalizing the human condition, into joy; the other by atomizing it, into horror” (511).

Berger, John. “Appearances.” Another Way of Telling. New York: Pantheon Books, 1982.
 Bolton, Richard. “In the American East: Richard Avedon Incorporated.” The Contest of Meaning. Ed. Richard Bolton. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1992. 261-281. Print.
 Sontag, Susan. “America Seen Through Photographs, Darkly.” Photography in Print. Ed. Vicki Goldberg. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988. 506-520. Print.