Diane Arbus (1923–1971) was one of the most original and influential American artists of the 20th century. She is remembered for being a photographer who chose her subjects contrary to existing popular convention. She charted her own path in her quest for meaning both in her photographic work and her personal life. Some of her work was focused on capturing the world of rituals and subcultures in and around New York City in the 1950s and ’60s, and the individuals who inhabited those realms. In fact, the work produced by Diane Arbus is often shocking in its purity (SFMOMA, 2006).
She was a photographer with a special gift for rendering strange those things we consider most familiar, and uncovering the familiar within the exotic, thereby expanding our understanding of humanity as a whole. Before her suicide in 1971 she had already become a serious influence to photographers of the younger generation. Arbus chose to explore with her camera, unusual places such as carnivals and nudist camps, theaters and backstage dressing rooms, circuses and side shows, wax museums and dance halls, contests and pageants, parties and amusement parks.
She photographed a wide range of subjects: children, celebrities, religious zealots, middle-class families, transvestites, and eccentrics, couples, children, carnival performers, nudists and people on the street. It is interesting to observe that although Arbus’s most famous subjects were outsiders such as transvestites, strippers, carnival performers, nudists, dwarves, and other assorted “freaks,” and she was equally drawn to the prosaic in subjects as ordinary as children, mothers, couples, old people, and the like (Bissell, 2006).
Her choice of subjects indicates a curiosity about the relationship between appearance and identity, illusion and belief, theater and reality. Arbus researched extensively to choose her subjects. She roamed the streets, kept journals and noted leads from newspapers, books radio and friends (Carpenter, 2006). She was fascinated by oddness of appearances, peculiarity of lives, bodies, physiognomies and social conditions. Much of the controversy surrounding Diane Arbus’s work involves her use of the mentally or physically handicapped as subjects, which in the 60’s and 70’s inspired accusations of exploitations from some quarters.
Undoubtedly, a degree of notoriety helped extend the Arbus myth, but her interest in unusual people is one that dictated the scope of her work. She said: “Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot … it had a terrific kind of excitement for me… Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks are born with their trauma. They’ve already passed it. They’re aristocrats”. She photographed her subjects in familiar settings: their homes, on the street, in the workplace, in the park. Though the environmental setting varied, all the photographs held the intensity of interaction between Arbus and her subject.
Arbus regarded circus freaks as ”aristocrats” and female impersonators as gender-barrier pioneers and in her vision they were also beautiful people (Lubow, 2003). Diane Arbus was a controversial photographer of her times. She was lambasted by many people for choosing freaky subjects. Arbus was suspected of gathering a menagerie of freaks for voyeuristic exploitation (Nelson, 2005). The critic Susan Sontag divined that Arbus photographed ”people who are pathetic, pitiable, as well as repulsive,” from a vantage point ”based on distance, on privilege, on a feeling that what the viewer is asked to look at is really other. ‘
Sontag also felt that Diane Arbus aimed at showing that all human is one and that human beings are horrific monsters. But Arbus explains her obsession with freaks thus: “Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats. ” These words show clearly that Arbus’s personal and intellectual attractions to oddities of nature and society convey a responsiveness that is also a sense of responsibility (Schjeldahl, 2005).
Susan Sontag comparing the works of Edward Steichen and Diane Arbus said that while Steichen’s work was aimed at showing all human is one and that human beings are attractive creatures, Arbus showed that this is a world in which everybody is an alien, hopelessly isolated, and immobilized, in mechanical crippled identities and relationships. Diane Arbus aimed at showing that all human is one and that human beings are horrific monsters. According to Sontag, while Steichen universalized the human condition into joy, Arbus universalized it into horror. Everybody Arbus photographed was a freak.
The comments of Sontag on Arbus can be refuted. The main complaint Sontag places against Arbus is that she chose ugliness and horror subjects, made them pose, and took frontal pictures that were grotesque. Sontag, with an air of disapproval, claimed that Arbus’ work “lined up assorted monsters and borderline cases-most of them ugly; wearing grotesque or unflattering clothing; in dismal or barren surroundings’. Sontag says that Arbus interest in freaks expresses a desire to violate her own innocence, to undermine her sense of being privileged, to vent her frustration at being safe.
This accusation by Sontag does not have any truth in it. Though Arbus belonged to the privileged class, she was a deeply insecure person as can be evidenced in her divorce, and in her suicide. In one of her works titled “Flower girl as a wedding, 1973”, a young girl stands awkwardly, facing the camera, staring fixedly into the lens that looks down on her. She has flowers around her hair and there is a weedy shrub spilling out of the bottom of her long dress. Her fur jacket is crumpled and one side of the collar is larger than the other. She looks scared.
The photo seems to express Arbus’s feelings on marriage. Thus, there was no way that Arbus could have vented her frustration on being safe as Sontag opines. In her early works, Arbus brought out humanity in her subjects and coaxed out their personality. Sontag says that “Anybody Arbus photographed was a freak,” citing, as one of several examples, a boy waiting to march in a pro-war march wearing a “Bomb Hanoi” button. This earnest young man is definitely not a freak. The picture is of a naïve, fresh-scrubbed boy, rather typical of the 1960s, and shows the young man as he is.
No doubt he is shown as ignorant and absurd in his act of wearing the Bomb Hanoi button, but he cannot be considered a “freak,” when the truth is that many Americans, sadly, supported the Vietnam War. One of the best pictures of Arbus is “The 1938 Debutante of the Year at Home, Boston, 1966,” a picture of an extremely privileged woman well into the transition from middle age to seniority smoking in her bed. Every pore of this woman exudes privilege, captured in astonishing clarity by Arbus, a perhaps unequaled master of technique (Dolack, 2006).
This woman would not have considered herself a ‘freak’. Another photo that Sontag did specifically mention is the “human pincushion” of New Jersey, a middle-aged man who, while demonstrating his specialty, nonetheless is very proud. The privileged once-debutante and the circus performer are both comfortable with themselves and thus in front of the camera (Routledge, 2006). John Szarkowski, director of the Department of Photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art commenting on the works of Arbus and similar photographers said “Their aim has been not to reform life, but to know it.
Their work betrays a sympathy-almost an affection-for the imperfections and frailties of society” (in Diane Arbus Revelations, 2003, p. 51) Also evident in her attack on Arbus is the fact that Sontag considers the aim of a photograph is to make something beautiful. Well, one can disagree with this statement. A photograph doesn’t necessarily make something beautiful. The beauty as seen in the works of Arbus depended upon an established relationship of some sort between the sitter and the photographer. Her subjects always seemed to pose, and showed that they were aware of the photographer’s presence (Routledge, 2006).
Arbus got her subjects to face the camera, to present their self to it, usually gazing directly at its lens. This style of photography seemed to have a neutral air to it. In fact, Diane Arbus had the rare ability of opening up her subject photographically. She stripped her subjects emotionally, exposing raw and often freakish interiors (Stevens, 2006). Mark Steven had this to say about Diane Arbus in the New York Magazine: “Because Arbus was so seductive a photographer, most of her subjects stare back willingly, no doubt sensing a soul mate.
They never appear more naked than when clothed”. Overall, the style of Diane Arbus is best described in the maxim she followed: “the more specific you are the more general it’ll be. ” Arbus’s quest for meaning and the paradox of human individuality is the beauty in her work and this is best seen in the picture: “The child with a toy grenade in Central Park N. Y. C. 1962”. The photograph carries many oblique references such as the war aspect, the tension, the childhood innocence, and the twisted humor (Crookston, 2005).
Arbus’ work took a dark turn in her final works when her mental health deteriorated and that was seen in the collected grouped as “Untitled, 1970-71” in which Diane Arbus made mentally retarded people pose for her camera. These pictures seem to mirror a seriously mentally disturbed photographer behind it, a photographer who was soon to take her own life. Apart from this last collection, Diane Arbus can be seen as a photographer who changed the meaning of realism in the realm of photography.