Currently on display at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery is the work of Francesca Woodman, Robert Mapplethorpe and Diana Arbus. A somewhat melancholic collection of portraits, considering Woodman committed suicide at the premature age of twenty-two, Mapplethorpe died of AIDs and Arbus’ figures all in someway harboured a sense of displacement within conventional society – the strength of the photographic work transcends the accompanying tragic histories.

The exhibition of the three artists’ work centres on portraiture and representation. Upon entering, the viewer is first greeted by the work of Francesca Woodman. Heavily influenced by Surrealism and a year spent studying in Rome, Woodman often sought to capture and depict herself in derelict buildings; photographing herself in motion to create a blur of the face and body. Many of the works within the exhibition feature these ambiguous visual qualities. Utilising Surrealist tropes throughout her work, such as the use of fur and animals, Woodman creates a visual language through her small format photographs. In most works she is half visible, half hidden; whether that entails crouching in a darkened corner, holding wallpaper across her naked body, or obscuring herself and others in the shadows. Within the exhibition, there are photographs with her handwriting scrawled across the bottom, something she often did to her work and which in this case were intended as love notes to her boyfriend.

Following these photographs comes the work of Diane Arbus, whose employment of the camera is direct and the focus on her subject deeply exposing of their vulnerabilities. Her work captures drag queens, dwarfs, giants and general outcasts of society; most of whom she photographs in intimate domestic spaces in order to reveal the character beneath the exterior. Her subjects pose for her, often gazing directly into the camera with an assertive sense of self. The works within the exhibition sit not only as photographs on the wall, but as a glimpse into the life of a person who stares back.

The show concludes with the work of Mapplethorpe’s self-portraits. The curation of these are particularly poignant, as the viewer is first greeted by his earlier works; risqué pieces, containing bondage costumes and overt references to his homosexuality – Mapplethorpe is entirely unapologetic in his presentation of himself. He blurs the boundaries between gender, often dressing up in drag or in tough leather jackets, playing about with gender distinctions. Throughout most images, his eyes pour out from the photograph and into the viewer; as if the strength of his gaze could penetrate living bodies.

Towards the end of the collection of his photographs, the tone changes from being self-assured to haunting. Following his AIDs diagnosis, Mapplethorpe’s portraits become gaunter, his gaze still strong but more haunted. Two works are particularly unnerving; one of him sat in his silk dressing gown, ill, frail looking and vulnerable. Another, his face seemingly floating in blackness, with his hand on a stick which has a skull attached to it; a foreboding suggestion of his inevitable death.

An incredible exhibition of intensely felt lives and stories; the photographs throughout this exhibition stay with you long after you have left the room.

Exhibition runs until Sun 20 Oct 2019