Art & Photography

Diane Arbus: Affinities

William Kherbek considers the commercial influence behind Diane Arbus’s storytelling impulse in her exhibition Affinities at the
Timothy Taylor Gallery

Diane Arbus: Affinities at Timothy Taylor Gallery
Diane Arbus: Affinities instillation courtesy of Timothy Taylor Gallery

No matter how many times I’m reminded of the fact that Diane Arbus was a successful commercial photographer at the same time as she was establishing her singular aesthetic it always comes as a surprise. Like hearing Lou Reed was a commercial pop-song writer before he formed the Velvet Underground, it just somehow does not compute. A new show of Arbus’s work has opened at Timothy Taylor Gallery in London and in presentation and content,it embodies the contradictions at the heart of Arbus’s work. For those who don’t know her work—there may still be a few—Arbus’s most famous works represent a kind of genteel American gothic, at times, perhaps grotesque but somehow never quite impolite. The first word people seem to reach for when writing about the subjects of Arbus’s images is “freaks”. This is a distinctly unhelpful way to think of her imagery and her mission.While there are no shortage of unusual people and practices depicted in the show at Timothy Taylor—titles like A woman with her baby monkey, New Jersey 1971 are less evocations and more literal descriptions—it’s not the weirdness or the freakery that most defines what is special about her work, it is the sheer proximity to “normality” that the woman with her baby monkey and the Dominatrix embracing her client N.Y.C. possesses.

“Arbus’s most famous works represent a kind of genteel American gothic, at times, perhaps grotesque
but somehow never quite impolite”

The word “outsider” inevitably also appears in relation to Arbus’s work. While it certainly describes many of the subjects of her photographs, Arbus has a way of finding everybody’s inner outsider, thus making imminently comprehensible lifestyles that today may seem a bit strange but which at the time they were taken would have been scarcely conceivable. The show, titled Affinities, does a fine job of highlighting both Arbus’s influences and her legacy.Images like Clouds on-screen at a drive in movie, N.J. are as romantic and technically accomplished as anything by Ansel Adams. Images of campers at a summer camp hiding in trees, thin legs and knees peeking out between leaves, or of English children in Central Park have a winsomeness behind the ever-present Arbusian darkness that could have come straight from the world of Wes Anderson. Somehow Affinities left me thinking that perhaps Arbus’s greatest influence on American art has been to the indie film culture that emerged in the late90s and continues to the present. Stories are as much at the heart of Arbus’s work as icons. Here and there in images you feel people like John Waters, Todd Solondz and Darren Aronofsky also found some reflection of their own inner outsiders and a language in which to tell their stories. So maybe it’s not so strange after all that Arbus was in the commercial world before her art gained recognition. There’s nothing more compelling in the world of advertising than a good story and stories were something Arbus was always able to find.

Diane Arbus: Affinities shows at Timothy Taylor Gallery 26 June-17 August