Editor's note: The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art provided source material to Resource Library for the following article or essay. If you have questions or comments regarding the source material, please contact the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
February 12 - May 15, 2005
The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art [SMoCA] presents "Street Credibility" from February 12 - May 15, 2005, an exhibition that places the work of the legendary photographer Diane Arbus (1923-1971) in historical context. "Street Credibility" features more than 170 works from the 1930s to the 1980s by many of the era's leading photographers. The exhibition includes more than 40 of Arbus's landmark images, which appear alongside earlier works by the photographers who inspired her, and other photographers influenced by her unique vision. In addition to Arbus's imagery, "Street Credibility" includes the work of Larry Clark, Theo Ehret, Robert Frank, Charles Gatewood, Les Krims, Sally Mann, Bill Owens, Jeffrey Silverthorne and Garry Winogrand, as well as a selection of photographs by Arbus's predecessors, including Brassaï, August Sander and Weegee. (right: Theo Ehret, "Unknown Wrestlers," c. 1970. Gelatin-silver print, 8 x 10 inches. Collection Mike Kelley)
"Street Credibility" was curated by the Los Angeles-based artist Mike Kelley, who was invited to select works for the exhibition from the permanent collection of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, where it premiered in 2004. "Street Credibility" is an artist's perspective on Arbus's art and on the theater of "street photography." Kelley explores a time when the boundary between what was real and what was artificially created became increasingly blurred. Focusing on the similarity of this generation's subjects and approaches, the exhibition is organized around several broad themes, such as people inside their homes, individuals with their possessions, couples, entertainers and spectacles.
"Street Credibility" was organized by The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and curated by Mike Kelley. This exhibition is supported in part by the Max Yavno Fund. Local presentation was made possible in part by J.W. Kieckhefer Foundation, Margaret T. Morris Foundation, My Florist Café and Bar, Mikki and Stanley Weithorn and the SMoCA Salon, with promotional support from Arizona Monthly.
ABOUT DIANE ARBUS
Diane Arbus had a profound impact upon contemporary photography, especially considering her relatively short career, abbreviated by her tragic suicide in 1971 at the age of 38. Molded by the New York fashion industry and mentored by the great Austrian photographer Lisette Model, Arbus honed her edgy style during the 1960s. Best known for her touching and offbeat portraits, she blended the look of rapid-pace street photography with the deliberation of studio posing. Each moment appears to be random and spontaneous, while in fact she carefully isolated and arranged all details to create a tightly controlled photograph. Arbus often directed her lens at people who seemed to stand out from the mainstream, from celebrities and drag queens to identical twins and carnival performers. Through Arbus's eye, everyone appears with equal sympathy, united by the oddness and commonality of the human condition. She gained close access to her subjects and developed a special trust that resulted in photos of bare honesty. The Museum of Modern Art presented a retrospective of Arbus's work in 1972, the year after her death, which met with widespread acclaim. More recently, in 2004, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art organized a major traveling retrospective that rekindled popular interest in Arbus's imagery and cemented her reputation as one of the twentieth century's foremost photographers. (right: Diane Arbus, "Two girls in matching bathing suits, Coney Island, N.Y.," 1967, Gelatin-silver print, 16 x 20 inches. The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation Photography Collection, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Copyright © 1971 The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC.)
SELECTED PUBLIC PROGRAMS AND EVENTS
WALL TEXT AND LABELS FROM THE EXHIBITION
Street Credibility explores the "crisis of depiction" in photography in the 1960s -- a time when artists blurred the boundary between reality and the image created behind the camera. This exhibition, conceived and curated by contemporary artist Mike Kelley, looks at the shift away from documentary street photography and toward stylized arrangements that reflect a heightened sense of theatricality and subjectivity. The 1960s heralded a new awareness of the photographer's power to frame, selectively emphasize and thus manipulate the scene before the camera's lens.
The title Street Credibility directs audiences' attention to the questions at hand. Why do we assume that photographs taken on the street are necessarily "credible," a reflection of objective reality as a pedestrian might experience it? Do these photographers have the moral "credibility" to photograph outsiders and marginalized populations? Were some of the images perhaps taken covertly, without the subject's knowledge, be it on the street or elsewhere? Is reality in essence subjective, unique to each individual's perspective? To study a topic is to destroy it, declared the noted cultural critic Jean Baudrillard. Curator Mike Kelley similarly suggests that these photographers did taint their subjects' lives through the very presence of their cameras, regardless of the fact that the subjects were most often active participants in (as well as targets of) the photographic process.
Street Credibility describes a moment in America when the majority, mainstream culture (which was white, middleclass and increasingly suburban) began to feel the rumblings of political activism, the Civil Rights Movement and the women's movement. Amid such vast social change, artists stepped in to map America's diverse social landscape and to offer an antidote to homogeneity.
This exhibition is Kelley's response to an invitation from The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, to reconsider the great Diane Arbus's photographs in their collection, concurrently with the showing of an international traveling Arbus retrospective exhibition across town at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2004. How might Arbus's pivotal, landmark images-known for their odd humanism-be seen in context today, through the eyes of one of America's most important artists and cultural observers? Kelley focused on the similarities among the artists' approaches and organized the show around "types" of subjects: people inside their homes; individuals equated with their possessions; couples; entertainers; spectacles; and the impact of the camera's presence in everyday life.
Included are works by pioneers of street photography, such as Brassaï and Weegee, who strongly influenced Diane Arbus and the 1960s generation of photographers that forms the core of this exhibition (Larry Clark, Theo Ehret, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Charles Gatewood, Les Krims, Danny Lyon, Bill Owens, Jeffrey Silverthorne and Garry Winogrand). Kelley also included more recent works by artists influenced by Arbus's fascination with the dispossessed and by issues of voyeurism, such as Sally Mann and Cindy Sherman.
All works, unless otherwise noted, are from the collection of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation Photography Collection.
It's very subtle and a little embarrassing to me, but I really believe there are things that nobody would see unless I photographed them.
Diane Arbus had a profound and lasting influence on contemporary photography, especially considering her relatively short career. Molded by her work in the New York fashion industry and her tutelage under the great Austrian photographer Lisette Model, Arbus honed her radically new style during the 1960s. After her tragic suicide in 1971, at the age of 48, her photographs became icons and she became a legend. Arbus blended the look of rapid-fire street photography with the deliberate posing of studio portraiture. Although her images look random and spontaneous, in fact she carefully isolated the details and tightly arranged her photographs.
Arbus pushed the boundaries of depicting reality. She adopted the formal mannerisms of documentary photography, yet turned her lens on the offbeat corners of humanity that fascinated her-transvestites, dwarfs, twins, giants, nudists and other people categorized by the mainstream as oddities. Even her commissioned portraits have a tinge of quirkiness and the surreal. By presenting her subjects in conventional, staid arrangements (established by street photographers like Robert Frank and Weegee), Arbus lulled viewers into assuming that her images were offhand, objective records. Her subjects -- couples on the street, figures alone at home, oddly paired duos and ironic social scenarios -- lend her photographs the superficial appearance of documentary photography. Unlike many of the artists in this exhibition, however, Arbus used a large-format camera that required her subjects to pose-a particularly self-conscious and tedious task given that she shot her work far away from her studio.
Arbus's art straddles the pivotal shift from the public's belief in photography as pure documentation to the public's increasing awareness of photography as a means of interpretation. Arbus epitomizes a pivotal, ambiguous moment in the history of the medium: the notion of the photograph as a constructed reality had neither been fully realized nor absorbed. As Arbus brought marginalized figures center stage, she cast the light of attention usually reserved for celebrity onto common, yet uncommon, folk.
By contextualizing Arbus's photographic practice in Street Credibility, Mike Kelley intended to place Arbus's infamous and reputedly eccentric work in broader historical framework. He thus encourages viewers to consider the problematic nature of photography, reality and the gaps in between at a time when digital technology has brought an entirely new level of fiction to the photographic image.
By choosing images of similar subjects made by a wide range of photographers, curator Mike Kelley intended to highlight specific characteristics of documentary photography. By the 1960s, the style of street photography had become codified. Photographers tended to depict "real" life in standard ways-which gave rise to a period Kelley terms "documentary mannerism." The images in Street Credibility often are a cross between publicity stills and family snapshots. They resist the infamous "decisive moment," a phrase coined by the famed French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. The notion of a "decisive moment" presumed that an experience could be communicated by capturing the telling, peak moment of action-the split second when the past separated from the future. In contrast, the images in Street Credibility picture occasional moments and formal accidents within the mundane continuum of life.
"Most of these works were made to be shown in books, in a series format. There is a flow to the images and this flow is more important than their singularity. It is not about [declaring] 'here's the prime genius' or focusing on a single masterwork. It is about the connections you can make between the photographs," says Kelley. The installation for Street Credibility reflects the format of a book, wherein images are clustered together for a cumulative experience.
Before the pop era of the 1960s, mainstream culture often dismissed low-brow subcultures and populist pastimes (for example, bikers, circus performers, wrestlers, nudists.) The increasing ease of point-and-shoot cameras, however, changed the perception of photography as a domain for celebrities, politicians or important journalistic events. (Kodak's Brownie camera spawned the fad for hobby photography when it was invented in 1900; Kodak released the first Instamatic in 1963.) The public soon avidly recorded their own lives. The seemingly insignificant details and "seedier" aspects of life began to migrate into the mainstream media.
Mike Kelley has long been interested in the work of Theo Ehret, a German émigré who was the house photographer for the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles beginning in 1964. In addition to documenting wrestling at the Olympics, Ehret photographed erotic female "apartment wrestling" staged on sets constructed in his studio. His interest in the cult of wrestling, in its entire spectrum, parallels Diane Arbus's fascination with marginalized people and fringe society-twins, giants, transvestites, etc. However, in Ehret's images, there is no question that the world he depicts is a theatrical construct-one that many enthusiasts invest with intense belief.
Artists in the 1960s and 1970s often reacted against the blatant commercialization of art, including the use of glossy, high-end photography to sell everything and anything, be it lifestyles, objects or celebrity. Many photographers thus deliberately shot their images quickly and embraced grainy film, offhanded compositions and cheap printing. Yet, they nonetheless "arranged" human life in modes that recall the staged images of advertising photography. (Such overlap between the high-art and commercial realms of photography is longstanding; American modernist photographer Edward Steichen, for example, was enormously successful as a commercial photographer in the 1930s.)
Artists of the post-war period generally preferred to work in black and white, although color film had been available (if cumbersome to use) for several decades. Their choice was perhaps a way to avoid any resemblance to the slickness of commercial photography and to Pop art, which celebrated consumer culture and the glut of products. Interestingly, many of the photographs in Street Credibility are concurrent with early works by conceptual artists who incorporated snapshot images in their art. Such continual crossovers between art and photography continue to influence-and to expand-both professions today.
As photography gained legitimacy in the art world in the 1980s, a younger generation of artist/photographers used the media as a way to play with variations on identity and personal persona. Cindy Sherman's early pictures of the late 1970s were staged, black and white images of anonymous women that mimicked publicity stills from well-known films. In fact, she was the actor in each photograph-made up, dressed up and cast in the role of typical starlet, ingénue, housewife or glam star. By appropriating the look of the mass media, Sherman explored the role of women communicated by the world of film, TV and advertising-and the ways such images inescapably infiltrate one's psyche. In many of her works, the women are watched-objectified by the camera-and the viewer is cast in the role of voyeur. This interest in voyeurism echoes the motive of Arbus's photography and reflects a similarly deep humanitarian impulse and call for empathy.
Photography -- and photographers -- now provide influences (and sometimes the actual photographs) for advertising and fashion shoots. Think, for example, of the parallels between midcentury documentary photographs and the recent fashion magazine style of "heroin chic" and Seattle grunge. Contemporary media takes the idea of such fake staging to new heights with reality TV. The genre exemplifies what the artists in Street Credibility knew-photography is the perfect medium for self-invention and self-projection.
RL readers may also enjoy this earlier article:
Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in Resource Library.
Visit the Table of Contents for Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art, calendars, and much more.
© Copyright 2005 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.