My senior year at Yale, I was up late one night with a friend, and we got hungry. We remembered there was an all-night dinner on Chapel Street near the YMCA, only a few blocks from our residential college. We expected to find the diner nearly empty at that hour, but it was hopping. I remember feeling as if we had wandered onto the set of a Fellini movie. The place was crawling with pimps, prostitutes, drag queens and outliers of every sort who could get out of the cold for the price of a cup of coffee. Their pallor under the diner’s florescent glare indicated that they were mostly creatures of the night. My memory may be faulty after nearly half a century, but I seem to recall that conversation came to a stop when my friend and I walked in and took a seat at the counter. Here we were, a couple of college boys, a bit scruffy perhaps but otherwise unremarkable. And yet the stares from our fellow patrons strongly suggested they didn’t feel we belonged there. It was a freak show all right; but at that hour, in that company, we were the freaks.
I don’t know if the photographer Diane Arbus ever took pictures at an all-night diner, but she was certainly drawn to the slice of humanity you might find at such places in the dead of night. Arbus staked out carnival sideshows, nudist camps, insane asylums and drag queen balls, always on the lookout for suitable subjects. Even her portraits of less exotic types display the same instinct for the uncanny, if not the downright grotesque. Freud, in his essay “The Uncanny,” notes that the term conveys both familiarity and strangeness, as do the subjects of Arbus’ portraits. They are fellow human beings whose gaze meets our own, suggesting they are not as different from us as perhaps we would wish them to be. Like the deformed carnival sideshow performers in Tod Browning’s notorious 1932 horror film Freaks, they welcome us into their world chanting, “One of us! One of us!”
A young Susan Sontag was clearly unnerved by Arbus’ photographs in the first major exhibition of her work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1972. In an essay in the New York Review of Books, Sontag contrasted them unfavorably with the Walt Whitmanesque celebration of the common man she had found in the work of the Depression-era photographer Walker Evans. She wrote that “the Arbus show lines up assorted monsters and border-line cases—most of them ugly; wearing grotesque or unflattering clothes; in dismal or barren surroundings—who have paused to pose and, often, to gaze frankly, confidentially at the viewer.” Sontag complained that “Arbus’s work does not invite viewers to identify with the pariahs and miserable-looking people she photographed.” But I suspect the real problem was quite the opposite. It was the confidential gaze, rather than just the grotesqueness, that she found so unsettling. Arbus’ portraits eliminated any distance between viewer and subject, leaving us defenseless against our common humanity.
To gain insight into Arbus’ method, we might consider a concept known as ostranenie, first coined by the Russian literary critic Victor Shklovsky a century ago. Variously translated as “defamiliarization” or “estrangement,” this artistic technique literally means “making strange.” The idea is to take something that has become shopworn or overly familiar and to present it in such a way that we are forced to see it as if we had never encountered it before. It is one thing, of course, to find humanity in those who are regarded as freaks, and quite another to bring out the strangeness in those who might otherwise appear to be quite ordinary. Arbus was able to do both.
If you are looking for evidence of the uncanny, there is no need to stake out carnival sideshows or all-night diners. Just drop by the nearest Wal-Mart or any other venue where a cross-section of the population is likely to be found. Here you will find a fair sampling of everything Sontag found objectionable in Arbus’ work -- the lame, the halt and the blind -- right down to their unflattering clothing. Normally we can go about our business without having to engage them intimately, as you do in an Arbus photograph. As long as they remain anonymous, we are fine. It is not their strangeness so much as their familiarity that we find hard to bear. We want no reminders that they are one of us.
Susan Sontag, “Freak Show,” New York Review of Books, November 15, 1973
Victor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique,” 1917