Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Through a Lens Darkly

Her favorite locations were carnivals, sideshows, prisons, mortuaries, asylums and seedy motels. Her favorite subjects albinos, midgets, misfits, the crippled, the destitute and the mad. Today the original photographs of those people in those places are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. The woman behind the camera was Diane Arbus (pronounced Dee-ann), born in New York City in 1923 and by the time of her death in 1971 one of the most distinctive photographers of the twentieth century.

Her photographs often hint that she lived on the margins of society, that she was only pointing her camera at the rooms and denizens of her daily life. Arbus was born into a wealthy Jewish family with apartments on Park Avenue and Central Park West, a life far removed from the dark freakishness that characterizes most of her photographs. Life defined by the niceties of Park Avenue and upper middle class sentiments proved to be artificial and divorced from reality. From this sense of smothering the young woman wandered out as a voyeur into an underworld that brought danger, fascination and face-front exposure (like her photographs) of the ugly realities in life.

She married photographer Alan Arbus at eighteen, the two of them making a start in advertising and fashion photography. They were successful at this and their work appeared regularly in Vogue, Glamour and Seventeen. For fifteen years the work of Diane Arbus was as a stylist-art director of her husband’s photographs, centered upon the world of her birth, preserving imagery of things she didn’t believe in—staged set ups of primped and perfect models posed among the bland pastel of middle class dreams.

For Arbus, work as a different kind of photographer emerged in 1959 when she began studying the art with Lissete Model, an Austrian teacher at the New School of Social Research. From this teacher she got encouragement to delve deeper into the unorthodox themes that filled her camera mind, as well as a strong grounding in the technical aspects of photography. By the early sixties Arbus was producing commercial portraits for Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar. These early photographs are traditional portraits of famous names, but even so have a quality that is strange, somehow troubling. As in the later work, here too we see the face-front pose with the subject looking directly into the lens. Hard to ignore the feeling that Arbus caught her subjects at a moment when their oddness is most revealed. Her baby portrait of CNN correspondent Anderson Cooper, while beautiful in every pixel is still a picture that makes the viewer stare. Something about the baby’s perfect mouth.

Despite huge popularity and esteem, critics debate the value, morality and meaning of Arbus photographs. There is always the question of why her subjects allowed her to show them as she did, of how she was able to get into their homes. In some cases we wonder if institutions really allow people to wander through their wards with cameras. Susan Sontag had something of a fascination with Arbus and wrote in the New York Review of Books, ‘Arbus’s photographs undercut politics…by suggesting a world in which everybody is alien, hopelessly isolated, immobilized in mechanical, crippled identities and relationships.’

Diane Arbus committed suicide on July 26, 1971 in her Westbeth apartment in Greenwich Village.


  1. There is always a fascination with the odd, the downtroddened, the folks on the edges of society that could easily people the carnival freak shows. Arbus captured that perfectly. Can't explain the interest of most but as a writer it is their interior life, their daily dealings with their oddness. As the Paul Simon song says:

    Some folks' lives roll easy as a breeze
    Drifting through a summer night
    Heading for a sunny day
    But most folks' lives, oh they stumble
    Lord they fall
    Through no fault of their own

  2. She definitely walked on the dark side. Very disturbing photos - especially the one of Anderson Cooper, though I can't say exactly why. What a strange life she led.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America