I have always been the type of artist and art appreciator who tires of complete realism. I abhorred the same old make-it-look-like-the-photo landscape assignments in school growing up. I liked portraiture a bit better, but only if I made it my own, whether desired in the class assignment or not.
I always believed art should only show us what we cannot see in reality, or else what was the point? However, how much of reality do we really see, and how much simply slips from our view unnoticed? Human perception is a funny thing. You could have two people walk down the same stretch of sidewalk in a park, and if in the end you asked them to describe the scene they just participated in, I am 99.9% certain that they would each describe it completely differently. We notice what draws us, and ignore what repels us. That idea is the basis of the following artists’ work, work that shows us the marginalized and disenfranchised; the very people who often slip to the periphery of our awareness either consciously or unconsciously. Viewing these works, we are shown a reality that seems like a completely different world.
For his “Underexposed” series, Aaron Draper captures lit photos of the homeless, aiming to portray them in the most pleasant, visually appealing way possible. Draper sites author John Steinbeck as an inspiration, and admires how he used his craft to highlight the plight of the poor, and expose social issues and inequities. With this series, Draper is using lighting to draw viewers towards the person shown, causing the subject to be viewed with humanity and compassion. Draper says, “When it comes to social activism, you achieve greater public awareness by communicating hope as opposed to hopelessness”.
Famed photographer Diane Arbus takes almost the complete opposite approach to the previous artist. The black and white photographs of her subjects seem to be developed in such a way as to accentuate each imperfection, every wrinkle, blemish, and flaw. Her work turns its lens on society’s outsiders : those with physical abnormalities, nudists, transgender individuals, those with extreme tattooing or body modification, and rarities such as twins. Unlike Draper’s work, there is a darkness to it and a definite surreal quality (One of her photographs of twins actually inspired Stanley Kubrick’s iconic “The Shining twins”.). She is certainly a disputed artist. Some argue she was voyeuristic and exploitative , her photos no better than the circus “freak shows” that thankfully no longer exist in this day and age. Her motives and connection to her subjects have been called into question since her photographs were not necessarily being used to communicate a social purpose or to inspire a change in the treatment of the individuals, but more for striking visual interest. Additionally, her series in which she photographed individuals living in group homes for those with mental challenges, of which the above is a part, brings up a consent issue. Since the photographs were taken between 1969 and 1971, a time when individuals at such institutions were given little to no rights, the permission to photograph the residents was not given by the individuals themselves but the institution. Such a project would not be allowed publication by today’s standards. Others argue she is possibly one of the most misunderstood artists of the 20th century. Consent between photographer and subject is important, and I cannot speak to the validity of the permission she received. However, to me, Arbus wasn’t looking at her subjects with revulsion and disgust. They don’t appear isolated or lonely but confident, happy and uninhibited. They are comfortable in their own skin and are completely unaware of how they appear to others. Arbus had a great respect for her unusual subjects she sought out, saying “Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.” (though I do flinch at the way she throws around the “f-word”.) If anything, it was the so called “normal people” Arbus portrayed as lonely and disconnected and silly.
The subjects of Johannessen’s “Looking Out, Looking In” series are individuals who don’t identify with any gender, male or female. An article in Independent about her show describes the portraits as “challenging the onlooker defiantly to try and categorize them”. All photographs are untitled, the subjects unnamed. The goal is to draw the viewers in to whom each individual is as a person, rather than the viewers obsessing over the single facet of “Are they male or female?” This is an interesting concept to me as someone who has always felt gender is about the last thing I notice about someone. This has led to some interesting social kerfuffles in the form of myself ending up on dates I never knew I was on. I pretty much am this comic below anyway, only with brown hair and zero barista skills.
All that aside, the point is once again using art to bring humanity to those who are often misunderstood or ignored. Everyone struggles with identity crises from time to time, but most of us can’t even imagine feeling that such a basic component of our personhood is alien to us. Many of us can’t imagine the feelings of confusion, isolation, and despair such a conflict would bring. Individuals like the ones in Johannesson’s photographs often get treated like unicorns, an interesting idea, but they don’t really exist. This series confronts those misconceptions head on. No matter what we each individually believe, empathy and above all love is possible, and I daresay required.
The goal of photographer Debbie Rasiel’s “Picturing Autism” series is to explore what autism looks like across language and cultural barriers. The series spans New York, Mexico, Peru, Indonesia and Iceland.”I wanted to offer those not familiar with autism an opportunity to see what autism looks like, a safe space where social mores would not prevent them from staring,” Rasiel stated in an article for The Huffington Post. Again, art has urged people to lock eyes with and confront images of individuals from whom they normally may avert their gaze due to unfamiliarity or uncertainty.
Art not only has the ability to show us things we can’t see in real life, but it has the ability to force us to see the unseen, and that is a wonderful and magical thing.