Does the Camera Lie?

Badgerbag, who also blogged our initial entry here, writes about what makes someone photogenic or not, and about “sincerity mixed with the art of lying.”

This made Laurie think about Diane Arbus, a well-known photographer who specialized in photographs of freaks and also of “ordinary” people. The deliberate intention with which Arbus humiliated her subjects can be seen in this picture, among many others.

Arbus uses her camera here to distort her subjects in a lie as absolute as an advertising artist can use Photoshop to create the goddesses and gods of the magazine covers. Arbus, a mistress of the ugly caricature, demeans these models by how she depicts the body and clothing signatures of their class.

Cameras don’t have to lie. Photography can provide a reality which is mediated through the artist, and therefore constrained, but nonetheless evokes a truth about the model. The kind of work we support is the alternative to this two-pronged evil: not the beautiful stereotype of what we cannot be nor the ugly caricature that laughs at what we are, but the confirmation of the beauty that’s really there.

6 thoughts on “Does the Camera Lie?

  1. As Debbie already knows, I don’t feel the same way about Arbus at all. I think her work is pitiless, but not humiliating per se. And I admire that pitiless quality, that refusal to prettify the subject or seek out or value beauty for its own sake. It’s a hard quality to love in an artist, though. And it’s an aesthetic stance that is totally inimical to what I see Laurie as doing, so it doesn’t surprise me that she doesn’t like Arbus at all. Fortunately, I am an artistic slut and can like them both.

  2. I do not see Dianme Arbus’s work so much as a manipulation,
    but as a sense of vision.
    She saw the bizarre in everything,
    was able to focus on this
    and capture it with the camera.

    Whereas you see the beauty and dignity of the people you work with,
    focus on these aspects,
    and this is what comes through in your work.

  3. This short post has really rearranged my thoughts on Diane Arbus. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say she humiliates her subjects. But I do see now there is a lot less sympathy between she and her subjects than between either August Sander and Liu Zheng and theirs.

  4. Your first link is broken, there are two “http”s.

    I spent a long time at the recent Diane Arbus exhibition and while I don’t actually know her intent, I came away from the exhibition believing that her work as a whole wasn’t about humiliation or lying or uglifying. It was about looking at the world and its people from a certain perspective — a very different perspective from the one that we’re used to seeing in the hundreds of photographs we see most days in an image-heavy advertising culture.

    Cameras don’t lie; photos sometimes do, especially photos that are manipulated in hidden ways and presented as if they have not been manipulated.

    Is beauty “there” in a person — or a photo — or is it something that a viewer needs to bring to the experience? How do children learn what’s beautiful and what’s not? And can people (of any age) relearn what they think is beautiful — change it or add to it? If so how can we encourage people to learn to find more realistic, more diverse images of people beautiful?

  5. “And can people (of any age) relearn what they think is beautiful — change it or add to it? If so how can we encourage people to learn to find more realistic, more diverse images of people beautiful?”

    I certainly think my ideas about what is beautiful have changed or at least expanded. Some of it is due to life experience. I have a larger “database” of experience to work from. I think familiarity helps expand our appreciation of beauty. Seeing a wheelchair user for the first time they may just be a subject of curiosity. Once you see enough people in wheelchairs that you can notice anything besides the wheelchair. You can start noticing how one has nice hair or beautiful eyes or pretty ebony skin etc.

    What is interesting to me is the things that people don’t notice about an individual. I notice wheelchairs and what they look like. They seem to be important pieces of data to me. Like what one is wearing. Many people don’t notice anything about my wheelchair except that I’m in one.

    It’s also interesting how often people mistake me for other wheelchair users who look nothing like me. I was regularly mistaken for two other locally famous wheelchair users in Berkeley. Never mind that the only thing we had in common was that we were white, male and used wheelchairs.

  6. From Laurie

    When I reread this I realize that my responses are very incomplete but the questions involved need long essays.

    Lori says (of Diane Arbus) “And I admire that pitiless quality, that refusal to prettify the subject or seek out or value beauty for its own sake.”

    For me pitilessness implies without compassion, which usually means a “neutral” objectivity. The issue is not the quality of her work.

    Given the world we live in sympathy and/or “correctness” are frequently not found in good art. Her work is very true to her internal vision.

    I think that manipulation is part of all art, whether it’s technical or aesthetic. I’m not suggesting that her attitude towards her models affects the quality of the art.

    August Sander’s work is not necessarily sympathetic (his photos of Nazi (officers etc.), but I experience the reality of his people. I need to check out Liu Zheng.

    Photos can also be manipulated by photographers choices. You made me want to look at some negative media pictures and compare them with Arbus. And, of course, this is my subjective reaction to her work.

    I think the issues you raise about beauty, learning and relearning and diversity are central, and we’ll be discussing them a lot as time goes on.

    This is cool stuff. It really got me thinking. This is what I was hoping from the blog … and it’s only day 3.

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