“The Cameria Is Cruel,” an excellent show of work by American photographers Lisette Model (originally from Vienna), Diane Arbus, and Nan Goldin, offers an extended view of social life and exchange in the United States. Model spent her early professional life photographing high society in France, but she moved to New York in 1938 in the face of rising fascism, spending the rest of her life in the States.. Model belongs to an earlier generation and can be regarded as a major historical figure in photography. Diane Arbus, born into a wealthy New York family, often chronicles the marginal and the strange. She ended her life in 1971, and the following year the Museum of Modern Art presented her first retrospective. Although her death took place a half century ago, Arbus remains greatly popular today; her portraits of the eccentric, ranging from a physical giant looming over his parents in a suburban home,to a transvestite in curlers, to a compelling study of young twin girls remind us that the offbeat and the eccentric became direct recordings not only of Arbus’s extravagant imagination but also present a skewed view of America. In her work, its materialist dream became the site of troubling images that reveal a changing society.
Finally, Nan Goldn, born in the early 1950s, is, like the other two photographers, an artist interested in the social relevance of people whose peripheral lives caught her, and then our, imagination. She documented closely the evolving gay scene that took place after the social rebellions of the Sixties, and included intimate images of her own personal life. Goldin is most famous for “The Ballad of Sexual Depedency,” a collection of images (taken between 1979 and 1986) depicting the personal, often erotic life of her friends and shown with the accompaniment of music. It has become a famous documentary of an alternative lifestyle focusing on casual intimacy and a generalized sense of alienation, not necessarily imposed from authority above. The people we see in Goldin’s pictures live a life of spontaneity and and are indifferent to mainstream culture. All three artists are better known for their chronicles of society and the attention they paid to people, both mainstream and eccentric, rather than following any close interest in formal concerns. This does not mean that their images were graphically compromised; rather, the works suggest a willingness to document the way life was lived at the time the photograph was taken. Goldin, now close to 70 years old, still photographs in New York and Paris. In particular, she has become the representative artist of a generation, now aging, that participated in erotic change and challenged bourgeois notions of propriety. Model and Arbus, well known during the course of their careers, also were taken with recording social ways of seeing. Together, the three women photographers invented a style, based on emotional closeness and an interest in the life of the subject, that remains true to the edges of society rather than to the easily accepted. Since Goldin’s time, the break with regular life is increasingly accepted.
It can be said that the role of the camera in art has played a double function since the very early stages of its history: that of fine art aestheticism and that of social description. With the advent of the phone camera, high culture photography has been mostly replaced with the capturing of personal moments, beyond any consideration of traditional culture. The three artists in this show, whose work has been curated by Dr. Gerald Matt from the collection of Dr. Daniel Jelitzka (both men come from Austria), surely made headway into the increasing popularization of photographic art. Their interest in the social accuracy of the medium, its ability to capture the moment, often unguarded, of gamblers, nightclub singers, and models, not only moved photography away from the directions of high culture, it also championed a close to demotic way of looking at art. This resulted in an increasing interest in the rendering of experience, and the distancing of the genre from historical awareness or deliberate beauty. It wasn’t that such approaches to taking pictures didn’t exist at the time; rather, as this show makes clear, a social reckoning with the camera was becoming increasingly popular, especially because of the ease with which a camera could be bought. Once anyone could buy a camera, the genre of photography lost the allure of high culture. We might deliberate on whether the increasing democratization of the image has hurt or strengthened the art, but it is clear that these women were recording life as their first priority and took only a limited interest outside the portrayal of people.
Indeed, there is an anti-esthetic alive in many of the pictures. The triumph of raw experience holds sway in the works on show. This has been going on for a long time; Model was active in the first part of her career, in the earlier part of the last century, capturing the high life in France; a 1934 image, French Gamble Riviera, shows a broad, tanned man, dressed formally in a suit and sunning himself outdoors in a chair. It is true that the scenario, as we look at it today, points out just how much society has changed from privilege to democracy, and the portrayal of the gambler’s entitlement, expressed in the expensive suit he wears, is one of the picture’s strengths. So the image is a remarkable character study of someone whose life took place spending money in a careless fashion. Generally speaking, Model is unusually gifted in the portrayal of character; In the marvelous image Singer at Café Metropole, New York City (1946), Model captures a large, wild-eyed woman holding a microphone as she sings. She wears a dark print dress, and her expression, on the edge of anarchy, conveys the esthetic rapture of jazz. Model’s point here seems to be the portrayal of a barely constrained mayhem, inspired by the music of the time. Jazz was the popular music of Model’s generation, and the demonic energies of the singer emphasize the music’s support of uninhibited expression. As a result, the image becomes a single-image demonstration of social and artistic freedom.
As good as the image is, we could ask whether Model’s work, and also that of Arbus and Goldin, demonstrated a predilection for the transgressive, sometimes resulting in melodrama. There are times when the presentation of the unboundaried does away with the sense of measure that is usually part of good art—without losing strength and focus. And sometimes the pathos of Arbus and Goldin turns to bathos, undermining the tragic nature of their communication. There are tragic elements in the lives of all three photographers, which seem to have sharply experienced their outlook in art. But this does not mean that capturing distress or extreme behavior on film inevitably asserts depth. Sometimes art can be too much about itself. Social imagery usually gives viewers the impression that this problem has been evaded, but it is also true that the public recognitions we come across in this show can deliberately reject moments of seriousness for a view of society existing only on the surface. But, even so, the achievement of these three artists is so large, they transcend such skepticism as academic. Certainly, the portraits we see in these artists’ work are profoundly telling in illustrating the spirit of the time. The imagery succeeds in large part because the pictures are true to the Zeitgeist, existing in the present moment. Thus, the pictures describe untamed energies, presenting what was already a profound change in social mores.
Model captured the essence of people. There is a great photo of an elderly woman in San Francisco, shot in the 1930s but not printed until 1976, called Woman with Veil, San Francisco. Elderly, thin with an angular shape to her face, the subject of the photo looks off the left. She wears a lace veil and good clothing; a white piece of embroidery is draped over the neck of her elegant brown suit as she clutches her pocketbook. The image of the well-dressed older woman is charming but dated, tied to an earlier time. Coney Island Bather, New York (1939-41) shows a heavy woman in a black swimsuit leaning forward on the beach, her back to the sea. Coney Island, long a haven of pleasure for New York’s working class, is thus epitomized in this picture of an overweight woman smiling happily back at her audience. Her exuberance easily symbolizes several qualities: the populist excitement of the time and the person, the pleasures of the less affluent, the notion that a portrait of someone from the lower classes would have social and esthetic interest. The image can be described as democracy in action, but it is not a political image so much as a social portrait. The American ethos, almost always stemming from the energies of the immigrant determination to succeed, are not directly portrayed in this beach image. But three is the romantic suggestion of a working-class statement of happiness, sufficient unto itself.
Arbus was a master of the bizarre. Her 1966 portrait, A Yoiung Man in Curlers at Home, N.Y. (1966), depicts a man in his late twenties, likely Latino, staring back quizzically at the camera while wearing a black V-nedked shirt and holding a cigarette in his left hand. His eyebrows are cropped, and his demeanor, suspended between assertion and tacit defiance, speaks to the gay rights movement that was beginning at that time. It is a striking portrait that is also a piece of social history. In A Family on Their Lawn One Sunday in Westchester (1968), Arbus records a husband and wife in swimming suits, stretched out on loungers with a round table between them. Behind the couple, standing midway on an extended lawn, a boy holds a plastic pool.In the top third of the photo a line of tall trees takes over the space. One might think that this is a portrayal of the American suburban paradise; but the woman looks bored to the point of being jaded, while the man covers his eyes, as if he wanted out of the scenario. Not everything goes well in America, even when there is enough money to mask the malaise! Arbus knew this really well, and made photos that ca0pure the ambiguity of the American dream.
Close to seventy but still active, Goldin is showing pictures here she took decades ago. A consummate artist of informal portraiture, and an active participant in the bourgeois demimonde to which she belonged while young, Goldin was likely most affected by the suicide of her sister early in her life. Goldin left the middle-class life she belonged to and took up with a mostly gay group of friends, who lived according tothe own wishes, with an emphasis on eroticism and a sharp turn away from the conventional. While Goldin belongs to a generation who were aware of precedents in the experimental, she is particularly good at merging the the psychic struggles of the gay community, overwhelmed as they were by AIDS in the 1980s. Her own life became an open book as well—a picture of her, not in the show, with a black eye after being battered by her companion is striking. One might take Goldin to task for melodrama, an attachment to psychological overstatement, but perhaps that was appropriate for the time she made the pictures she is famous for. In her work, emotion, verging on sentimentality, surprisingly escapes the danger of excessive absorption with self to convey the sadness and vulnerability of people whose lives were made transparent by both their exhibitionism and established society’s judgmental regard. By concentrating on the marginal, Goldin turned life events into something more, mainly the notion that even a caste of the rejected could establish a social life of their own, given their determination to thrive.
Goldin’s work will be especially familiar to photograph enthusiasts who lived through the 1980s when the artist was well known for her images of friends ill with AIDS. Like Model and Arbus, Golden has been inspired in the treatment of her people who belong to her class, in this case a group of apparently middle class or affluent people more or less permanently outside conventional life. In the show, there is a picture of Goldin herself with deep shadows encircling her eyes; her focus remains on personal difficulty and suffering. At the same time, though, she directs her attention to a life of privilege; there are a number of photos of blond supermodels eating meals at expensive restaurants. These images don’t seem to conflict with the troubling details of her rougher photos; they embody the current penchant for allusion to suffering only partly hidden by a wealthy manner of life. One cannot say this outlook is entirely American, but certainly the bohemian lifestyle here has been more taken up with pleasure, even as it has become more friendly to money. It is important to understand the extent to which an alternative lifestyle now needs economic support, especially, since, in New York, the world downtown (south of 14th Street) has been gentrified for some time. One must not begrudge Goldin’s achievement; she portrayed people transparently in pain, herself and others. At the same time, we must acknowledge the length of time such a lifestyle has been in fashion, likely since the start of the 1950s. It is no longer truly another way to live, but has become expensive, nearly conventional.
In the long run these artists’ achievement will be judged not so much by formal accomplishments as by their willingness to empathize with a wide variety of people, wealthy or poor, celebrated or anonymous. The human side of society is emphasized, in ways that instruct the audience in the charming, and not so charming, idiosyncrasies of people. It takes a good amount of sympathetic regard to capture the human condition, charged as it often is with emotional hardship. Not everyone in the images of Model, Arbus, and Goldin suffer, but many do. Interestingly, the pictures very rarely take on a clear political position; the many hierarchies of society are researched with a neutral eye. But such neutrality does not mean we do not see details meant to awaken our social concerns, even if the pictures depicting difficult conditions are immediately followed on the gallery walls by images of wealth and excess. The pictures are surely formally coherent, but that is not the point. Instead, the illustration of human life, successful or not, is found in the photographers’ demonstration that human nature is accessible across boundaries of gender, class, sexual preference. This means that the imagination, in the case of this work, cannot be made to example moral judgment or force an ideology on the show’s audience. What happens instead is a grand review of social mores, sometimes tattered, but, even so, highly energetic. The title of the show, “The Camera Is Cruel,” is accurate in the extreme, revealing the eccentricities of human nature, starting in the early days of the 20th century and continuing to the present.