During our discussion last class about Arthur Munby and Hannah Cullwick’s relationship, we concluded that we couldn’t make very validated assumptions about the nature of their private pictures. Hannah’s portraits, however, raise interesting concepts about the intentions of a subject in front of the camera.
The images remind me of the photographer Diane Arbus’ ideas about self- expression and perception, something I mentioned briefly in class. Arbus took photos of marginalized groups or people whose attempts at normalcy were surreal, awkward, unsightly, or somehow unfamiliar to the image’s viewer. Transgender people, insane asylum patients, nudists, and families were her some of her subjects. Through the act of taking photographs, Arbus discovered a so-called “gap between intention and effect” of the people in her pictures; how people want others to perceive them, she concluded, is often very different than how they actually appear. Arbus’ pictures aren’t evil-intentioned in their open unpleasantness and disfiguration, though they can certainly be a little unforgiving. Her biography on Lens Culture reads: “Arbus believed that a camera could be “a little bit cold, a little bit harsh,” but its scrutiny revealed the truth; the difference between what people wanted others to see and what they really did see – the flaws (“About Diane Arbus”). I’ve attached some of her work below; a serious old woman looks like a caricature of herself, a little boy poses with a toy grenade, and a transgender person poses with an image of Marilyn Monroe.
So what is Munby and Cullwick’s “gap”? Is there one? Did their pictures come out in a way that met Hannah’s expectations about her own appearance and identity? It’s hard to directly apply Arbus’ theory to Cullwick’s portraits, in which she appears in costume, already intentionally unlike herself. But whether or not the pictures revealed something unexpected for Hannah, whether she was satisfied and gained pleasure from them, remains ambivalent.
In her book Pleasures Taken, Carol Mavor ponders over the meaning of the photos: “I am led to ask…whether the photographs are expressions of Munby’s own fantasies about a working-class woman, not unlike a painting of Jane Burden by Dante Gabriel Rossetti? Or are they Hannah’s own self portraits that unexpectedly prefigure the work of current feminist photographers and performance artists like Cindy Sherman and Eleanor Antin?” (Mavor 80)
Another student has already written about Cindy Sherman on this blog in a discussion about Hannah Cullwick’s portraits (here), but her work is worth noting here—her self-portraits sometimes produce a similar effect to Arbus’ in catching the particular oddities of someone. The Cullwick portraits lack the black humor of some of Sherman’s work, though. They contain a kind of seriousness, both on Cullwick’s part and also Munby’s, that we viewers might never be able to truly comprehend.
Diane Arbus’ Photographs:
Cindy Sherman’s Self Portraits:
“About Diane Arbus.” Lens Culture. Web. 9 Nov. 2014. <https://www.lensculture.com/darbus>.
Arbus, Diane. Mrs. T. Charlton Henry in her Chestnut Hill home, Philadelphia, PA. 1965. Gelatin silver print. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web. 9 November 2014.
Arbus, Diane. Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1965. Gelatin silver print. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web. 9 November 2014.
Arbus, Diane. Transvestite With a Picture of Marilyn Monroe. 1967. Gelatin silver print. Christie’s. Web. 9 November 2014.
Hannah Cullwick as Slave. Victorian Contexts. Web. 9 November 2014.
Hannah Cullwick as Magdalene. The London Evening Standard. Web. 9 November 2014.
Mavor, Carol. Pleasures Taken: Performances of Sexuality and Loss in Victorian Photographs. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995. Print.
Sherman, Cindy. Untitled #359. 2000. Chromogenic color print. Collection Metro Pictures. The Lonely One. Web. 9 November 2014.
Sherman, Cindy. Untitled #465. 2008, Chromogenic color print. Whitney Museum of American Art. Web. 9 November 2014.