Thursday, May 12, 2011

Diane Arbus, ‘King and Queen of the Senior Citizen Dance’ (1970)

This photograph features two senior citizens after they were crowned king and queen of a dance in New York city. The man and woman did not know each other, and their facial expressions evoke a sense of discomfort and unhappiness.

Diane Arbus struggled with depression throughout her life, and committed suicide in 1971. Her personal struggles are carried over into her photographs, which often show people at their most vulnerable. It has also been suggested that she had a fascination with outsiders and figures that struggled to fit in with society’s mainstream ideals. Blogger user ‘anythingofinterest’ comments that “[a]ll her photos have a sort of disturbing/unsettling quality to them. She had an uncanny knack for managing to capture people just as they allowed their masks to slip for a moment.” (1)

This comment raises questions, however, about how any photograph should be viewed. The famous phrase, “the camera never lies”, is itself a falsehood. The moment that light is exposed to a film a singular moment in time is captured. Viewed out of context, any photograph can be misread, therefore producing a variety of meanings which may be far from the photographer’s intentions. For example, the man and woman may have been smiling moments earlier. Rather than “allowing their masks to slip”, Arbus may have waited until the man and woman’s facial expressions changed in order to create a far more provocative image.

In spite of this, the photograph should still be read and analysed in the context in which it has been presented to us. ‘King and Queen of the Senior Citizen Dance’ features a man and woman who appear unhappy with their circumstances. There is a stiffness to their poses which suggests discomfort and the space between them emphasises the awkward situation. Most interesting of all, however, is the age of the man and woman, and how their clothing does not fit in with the era in which the photograph was taken. In particular, the woman’s glasses and shoes are reminiscent of the fashion of the 1950s. The man, similarly, could easily be dressed for two decades earlier. The photograph could therefore be a critique of the representation of senior citizens in America. Chosen as king and queen of their dance, and then dressed in regalia, the photograph imitates the traditional ‘prom king and queen’ found at American high school dances. They were not voted in, however, but rather had their names selected at random. The attempt at an imitation of their youth, and the evident unhappiness it has caused, suggests that there is no room for the older generation in 1970s society. While the woman still dresses as she did twenty years ago, American society is advancing and senior citizens are being left behind.

Finally, a museum guard, who Jesse Kornbluth discussed Arbus’ work with, had the following to say about the photography:

“[A]s I spent more time with the pictures, I saw what she was getting at. I got that these people were beautiful. That Arbus loved them. That she in no way exploited them. These pictures celebrate the freak in all of us." (2)

The rather cynical reading of the photograph I have made may then be ignoring an important element of Arbus’ photographs. Her troubled life is evident, and is reflected in the despondent expressions on the senior citizens’ faces. Her emphasis on the unusual and the outsider could also be read as a cynical representation of the ‘true American’, one who is unaccepted within society because they do not conform to the American ideal. However, as the guard’s comments suggest, her photography also reminds us all that no one is ‘normal’, and that these irregularities and eccentricities should be celebrated, not shunned.

(1), 1st April 2005


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