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Shirtless Self-Portrait wearing makeup, facing straight to camera.

Self Portrait, 1980

Self Evidence: Photographs by Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe

Group show brings a new perspective to the photography of three American artists.

The works of Francesca Woodman, Diane Arbus and Robert Mapplethorpe are touchstones of any major gallery which wishes to explore the edgier side of 20th century photographic history, and in each of their works there's a familiarity to longstanding visitors of the Scottish National Galleries. Yet – with the breadth of work in the possession of the Artist Rooms collection at its disposal – this new group show manages to bring a new perspective to their photography by placing them alongside and in context to one another.

Those works on display, for starters, are focused upon these American artists' own self-referencing (often self-portraiture) work, and play not just upon their agreeably complementary styles, but also upon the sense of societal change which each reflected. All three died tragically young, and all found their heyday occurring during the seismic period between the 1960s and the 1980s. Woodman died by suicide in her early twenties, but throughout her late teens amassed a lasting body of work which spoke of her times and the emergence of a new femininity as viewed by a young woman growing with society from the Women's Lib era into the next sexual revolution brought on by punk.

Woodman often shot in derelict, post-industrial spaces or raw, unadorned residential rooms, and most of these candid black-and-whites concentrate on her; on a dawningly self-aware contemplation of her own nudity, occasionally taken as sexually suggestive gifts for her boyfriend, or in long-exposure shots where she appears to be trying to alter or erase her own presence before the lens. Arbus died in the same manner as Woodman, and while none of the ten studies on display here feature her, the fact they combine as her 'A Box of Ten Photographs' series (this is apparently one of only seven in existence) says much about how she wished to be viewed as an artist.

Each of these prints bears a certain fame in its own right, and together they add up to a collection of Arbus' interests in her subjects, to the range of lives she saw as being of interest to her. In 2019, a more enlightened step on in time, it feels unusual to think of some of these people as outsiders because of their physical description alone, but in her picture of a fedora-wearing 'Mexican Dwarf', naked under bedsheets in his hotel room, a male-bodied person in gender-fluid make-up and curlers, and an abnormally tall 'Jewish giant' alongside his parents (elsewhere we see identical twins and an all-American young man preparing to march for the Vietnam War), Arbus' affection for her sitters is apparent.

Finally, Robert Mapplethorpe is the one of the three who appears to love the camera the most, meeting its gaze and performing emphatically for it. He adopts the guise of a machine gun-toting Patty Hearst before an inverted pentagram, plays the knife-wielding street punk, the cigarette-toting rocker, himself as an androgyne object of beauty, and later himself once more, but documenting the face of a man afflicted with the AIDS which would take his life. Boldly, the curation of this show has allowed for Mapplethorpe's infamous shot in which he inserts the handle of a whip into himself, but it doesn't affect the tone of this well-selected and staged triptych of mini-exhibitions; the sense of youthful creative energy, challenging of 20th century social norms and sadness around the final circumstances of each life fusing together beautifully.

Self Evidence: Photographs by Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, until Sun 20 Oct.