Art: Diane Arbus

    You cannot photograph a man who is 9ft tall, crammed into a tiny American apartment with his 5ft parents, as Arbus so famously did, without recording a special sight. By photographing outstanding people, Arbus ensured that her photographs stood out.

    By doing this, however, she headed into some complicated psychological terrain. There may have been times in the history of civilisation when gawping at freaks was considered a balanced and acceptable pastime, but, thank God, by the time Arbus arrived on the American scene, that urge had faded. It’s clear from her evidence that the freak shows continued to tour: there may still be stretches of redneck country where it remains possible today to goggle the Man from World War Zero or his consoling wife, the Woman with Alligator Skin. But in the mainstream, the light had shone, and the days of giggling at unfortunates were over.

    Something I have never noticed before, but that an astonishingly insightful Arbus exhibition which has fetched up at the V&A makes evident, is that Arbus was actually shedding a tear for this passing of the freak age, as she shed a tear for so much else. Being a freak at the end of an era was just as noble, in a sad way, as being a miner whose pit was closing. It takes special empathy to look at a man whose face is a cavity, and who seems to have an eye in the middle of his forehead — the Man from World War Zero — and to love him. But that’s what Arbus did. She, too, was a special sort of freak.

    As a general rule, I would advise against trusting a show that calls itself Revelations. Too much is being promised. But Diane Arbus: Revelations delivers what it says on the poster. Its organisers — chief among whom we should notice Arbus’s daughter, Doon, the fearsome guardian of the Arbus estate — have set about their task with a bristling sense of purpose.

    Doon Arbus has always known — it’s her inheritance and her curse — that the Arbus name has become synonymous with extreme and unsettling freak-show imagery. So, challenge number one for the largest Arbus retrospective for 30 years is to prove that its subject was much more than a collector of wackos.

    To prove that Arbus had range, and subtlety, and many moods, and the eye for detail of a mother admiring her baby — and also just to surprise the hell out of us — the show kicks off with a strikingly gentle array of images. A castle. Some faces. A family in the street. The most obviously Arbusy among them is a transvestite in his curlers, smoking a fag while he waits for his waves to set. It’s more Coronation Street than Andy Warhol, and, like so many of Arbus’s best photographs, it creates a momentary doubt when you first see it: bloke or babe?

    This uncertainty continues across to a grabby adjacent image of a huge, overpowdered, ageing face, smiling behind a veil, encountered on Fifth Avenue. Bloke or babe? By the time you reach the last image in the show’s opening sequence — a landscape, would you believe, of a castle at Disneyland, with a swan in the moat — you have been persuaded always to lean in and look more closely. The delight in Arbus is always in the detail. And, as you head back to the overmade-up face on Fifth Avenue for a re-examination, you start to suspect that it’s actually Alfred Hitchcock in drag. Thus, the photography of Diane Arbus sneaks through your eyes and into your fears, where it has fun with your certainties. As the excellent introductory text tacked to the wall puts it (and when have you read me quoting from one of those before?): “For Arbus, photography was a medium that tangled with the facts.”

    The show ahead celebrates this inspired tangling at a pretty much perfect pace. It follows a rough chronology, just enough to transmit a sense of growth, and begins with Arbus’s work before she discovered that famous square format of hers, and the extra sense of clarity you get with a 2inx2in, square-format, twin-lens Rolleiflex. There’s one in the show. That’s how I know. Before that, she used a 35mm Nikon, as everyone else did, and the opening of her career is brilliantly understood here as a tale of two cameras.

    With the Nikon, she would visit the sorts of places she always visited: Coney Island, Central Park, late-night cinemas, circuses, dressing rooms and, yes, freak shows: the taste for those was genetic. But her first hungers were for poetic and grainy effects. Among the most striking, and most grainy, of these poetic early Nikon shots is a Hitchcocky cinema scene of a huge Carroll Baker grimacing on the screen in Baby Doll, in front of which a mysterious silhouette is standing up to leave. What’s real and what isn’t? It was always her question.

    The transition to the Rolleiflex is impeccably handled. Every now and then, the beautifully installed sequence of photographs is interrupted by an atmospheric documentary section, tarted up noirishly to look like her library or her darkroom. Some might find them a tad too shrine-like, but I loved these worlds within a world, and recommend getting lost in them. Arbus’s actual cameras are preserved in one of the re-creations of her thinking spaces; and the evidence clustered around them, in words and pictures, is truly revelatory.

    It’s to do with stance. And eye contact. The Nikon has to be worked through a small viewfinder that you raise to the eye, thereby obscuring your own face and cutting you off from the subject. The Rolleiflex, however, is held to the chest and looked down on. It has a bigger viewfinder and, critically, it leaves the photographer free to make eye contact with the sitter, talk to them and direct them. With the Rolleiflex, the taking of a picture became a creative exchange between Arbus and her people. Two sets of negatives from the same shoot, a Nikon set and a Rolleiflex set, make obvious the results. With the Nikon, she’s poetic, warm, sad, excellent, but mistakable for someone else. With the Rolleiflex, she’s Diane Arbus.

    You will know many of the images that now begin to parade themselves showily along the walls. They are some of the most unforgettable images in photography. The angry little boy with the hand grenade. The two nudists slumped in front of the telly. The identical twins. The Jewish giant. The Mexican dwarf. Crystal-clear observation has replaced poetic graininess, and Arbus, off camera, has become a key player in the action, directing her sitters, annoying them, arousing them. For the nudist scenes, she notoriously became a nudist herself, joining in happily with the stripping. For the sex scenes, she often feels too close to be merely observing.

    Thus, the exhibition tells the story of a gigantic sense of empathy: emerging, billowing and, perhaps, growing out of control. Whatever the exact psychological drives were that led Arbus to side so fiercely with her freaks, all that is really important, in this fantastic context, is to note that she’s doing it. This information, once conveyed, forces you to re-understand all of her images, however familiar.

    Her most notorious sequence, the eerie set of untitled carnival shots she produced late in her career at a home for the mentally handicapped, have been criticised in the past as sensational and lurid. The offending pictures are gathered here in their own display, where they confirm that a taste for poetic graininess was returning to her, and prove, with utter certainty, that she was seeking to share, not to stare. They were taken in 1970. In 1971, she committed suicide.