Diane Arbus photographs are famous because in viewing them we become aware of our own
adequacies and inadequacies as we look full on into the eyes of the photographed.
Arbus (1923-1971, American)
was born in New York City in 1923 of affluent Jewish parents. They owned Russek's department store, which provided her with a life
of relative privilege. The family had hired help; she and her brother, the poet Howard Nemerov, had a nanny; and they attended
top notch schools.
"I remember the special agony of walking down that center aisle, feeling like the princess of Russek's: at once
privileged and doomed. . . . It seemed it all belonged to me and I was ashamed." This is American photographer, Diane Arbus, who
inhabited more than one world.
Image above taken from Diane Arbus: Untitled
At the age of 18, Diane Nemerov (she pronounced her name as "Dee-Ann") married Allan Arbus,
Together they worked as commercial fashion photographers at the family department
store. Diane Arbus, however, aspired to make art photography. She had wearied of the workman-like
photographing of models in store clothing. She had other plans.
That Diane Arbus was single-minded of purpose seems undeniable: she wanted to make the most truthful
pictures possible of her motley kingdom of characters, both high-born and low. And she found her
characters everywhere: in the streets, at the diner, at the circus. She brought awareness of the
complexity of selves from both behind and in front of the camera.
And viewers, who bring their
own complications into play while engaging with Diane Arbus photographs, add another layer of feeling
and intellectual play, not to mention their own self-consciousness during the "event." And an event
it was to come face-to-face with the shocking subjects she chose in the 1960's.
Image above taken from Diane Arbus: Untitled
Diane Arbus photographs do not shock today as they once did. That society is peppered with
transvestites; that we have children with Down's syndrome; and that the circus geeks have
come to town no longer affects us. Not in that way.
The slight figure of Arbus dancing hither and yonder throughout New York, admittedly having
fun in making pictures, is not unlike that of a Gatsby flapper gone sightseeing and slumming. This
is not to detract, however, from the matrixes of feeling and thought that Diane Arbus' photographs incite.
Diane Arbus tried to get to know many of her subjects. When she first took to the city in search
of people, she took shots from a distance. Instinct told her, however, that to achieve her desired,
intimate and personal images she would have to close in on her subjects.
In Diane Arbus' photo entitled: Young Man with Curlers, she does just that both
literally and figuratively. Not only is the camera in very close to her subject, but she
uses flash photography to reflect off the skin, giving an unnatural appearance to his face
and exposing every detail.
Her use of a twin-lens reflex camera with a square format, produced
a self-referencing photograph which is unashamedly an artifact; and elongated features that tend
to enhance the already freakish appearance of the young man. While we do not know Arbus primarily
as a technician, we do know that she worked hard to refine her approach.
In addition, we can look at Identical Twins as an example of normalcy turned otherworldly. The
twin girls, interviewed later in their adult lifetimes, claimed that it was common for sets of twins to be
photographed together. And indeed it is, yet Arbus has managed to create here an iconic image,
one that is often referenced today as ghostly.
Above: Cover photo of: Diane Arbus (An Aperture Monograph)
Although we are told that Diane Arbus' photographs were not posed, the twins remember that their mother
shoved them together side-by-side in what could almost be construed as one body mass in the picture. No
matter the utter normalcy of the girls - now women - Arbus causes us to draw our own conclusions about
the event and to read the picture from psychological viewpoints as well as aesthetic ones.
Right: Fur - An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (DVD)
Just as the subjects Arbus chose have many faces so, too, does the artist. For under the breezy façade of
years there lurked a darker nature. In 1971, Diane Arbus committed suicide. But in her life she was no brooding
Sylvia Plath and her tragic end is still speculated upon.
Perhaps we have come full circle to the places Diane Arbus inhabited along with her art.
Life, as she may have seen it, was a series of illusions. No one would know that better than she.
And while she spent so much of her life in the alleys and outposts of freaks,
going to the houses of complete strangers and beyond, she remains the guilty princess, a role she always relished.
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