Sylvielin's Blog

A Radical Shift in the Aesthetics of Photography-The Work of Diane Arbus

Posted in about Art, about Photography by sylvielin on January 15, 2014

‘She created her photographs out of who she was.’

──Joel Meyerowitz, photographer〔1〕

The first retrospective exhibition of Diane Arbus (1923-1971) in France opened in the Jeu de Paume in Paris, in fall 2011 ( from 18 October 2011 to 5 February 2012 ). It is an occasion to review the radically innovative photographic works of the artist whose work and life are equally full of tension and legendary aura.

Diane Arbus lived in New York for her whole lifetime. In the early years of her career, she and her husband Allan Arbus made photos for fashion magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar. Between 1955 and 1957, she was inspired by Lisette Model ( Austria-born photographer known for her street photography ) and began to forge her own documentary style. As for the subjects, she had a preference for fringe people or freaks : transvestites, dwarves, giants, institutionalized mentally retarded people, acrobats… She also photographed ‘ordinary’ people but they always appear weird, which is exemplified in her photos showing twins or people with similar traits ( such as clothing ). It was under the inspiration of Arbus’ famous photo Identical Twins, Roselle, N.J. 1967 that American filmmaker Stanley Kubrick (contemporary to Arbus in New York) made the sequence of twins in his film Shining (1980). As Colin Westerbeck, curator and writer of photography history put it, ‘It’s striking to what extent one set of subjects – fringe groups like nudists or transvestites, or institutionalized people who are retarded- seems to reflect the others. The “ordinary” people she found on the street look as if they live in the same seamless world as the mentally handicapped, the carnival sword swallowers, and the rest.’〔2〕The uncanny or dreadful feeling of her work also corresponds to her favorite painters’, such as the dreary giants, hunchbacked dwarves and demons painted by Goya or the evil world described in Grosz’s aquarelles.〔3〕

In the photography history, Arbus’ choice to photograph the freaks was not new. However, the most intriguing aspect of her photography is that it does not seem to reveal the kind of mercy generally cast on these kinds of subjects as one usually sees in photographic works about similar subjects. In her work, the subjects always looked directly to the lens and did not attempt to hide their defects or strangeness. On the contrary, they confidently revealed themselves. As Susan Sontag analyzed, ‘The authority of Arbus’ photographs derives from the contrast between their lacerating subject matter and their calm, matter-of-fact attentiveness.’〔4〕 In fact, Arbus went around to look for subjects she wanted to photograph and often stepped into unusual places:nudist camps, promiscuous gatherings, circuses… She got intimate with the strangers and they trusted her. Therefore, they expressed themselves easily in front of her camera. A striking example is A Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents in The Bronx, N.Y. 1970,the photo she took of the Jewish giant Eddie Carmel and his parents : the photo was shot almost a decade after Arbus knew the giant.〔5〕As Patricia Bosworth (the author of Arbus’ biography) described, Diane could always charm her subjects in a certain way so as to associate herself with them ; from such association stems her power to frighten, which is testified in all her photos and which is why other photographers cannot imitate her.〔6〕Technically and formally, Arbus used flash in daylight, which ’gave an unnatural feel to the pictures. It gave her subjects a certain fun-house presence, picking up the shine on faces in a way that made them physically gross, even grotesque, or that brought a careworn quality to them’, according to Westerbeck.〔7〕

An origin of Arbus’ particular photography practice can be traced in her background : she grew up in a wealthy Jewish family and hated the well-protected environment of her middle-class milieu. The state of being exempted from pain ( according to her) brought up an extreme curiosity in her for people and things beyond the world she lived. The subjects she selected to photograph and her own words all show how she was attracted to unusual people, which encouraged her to take up such a photography enterprise which was also a risky adventure. Just as people in her images appear both fearless and fragile, the artist herself was both shy and adventurous. Stepping into unknown fields and looking for eccentrics thus became a kind of ritual which not only satisfied the artist’s curiosity and eagerness but tested the limits of her fear. On the other hand, in her own belief, those who are born as freaks or eccentrics fit into the category of ‘aristocrats’ she defined : they possessed a kind of ’existential courage’, a nobility of mind and a purity of spirit.〔8〕She said, ’Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.’ Such a photography practice and expression of Arbus was very controversial at the time. Yet apart from the ( over ) reaction based on a moral stand, her work undoubtedly emerged as a new photography language and manifested an extremely particular sensitivity, which influences countless artists. Being plagued by depression and other diseases, Arbus committed suicide in 1971, which added to the legendary ambiance around her.

John Szarkowski, the Director of Photography of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) at the time, was among those who first appreciated Arbus’ work. He showed her work along with Gary Winogrand and Lee Friedlander in the exhibition ‘New Documents’ in 1967 in MOMA. The three artists’ works were regarded as manifestations of new documentary photography trends, just like what had been announced in The Americans (1958), a legendary photography series by Robert Frank.〔9〕Besides, Szarkowski suggested that Arbus study the ‘archetypes’ photography of German photographer, August Sander. Arbus had seen Sander’s work ; the parallels between Arbus’ work and that of Sander are often drawn. After the First World War, Sander lived in Germany and documented all kinds of people in the country. The subjects faced at and gazed into the lens and also appeared expressionless. The photography enterprise was ceased by Nazi authorities around 1932. With this project, Sander assigned himself the task ’to see things as they are and not as they should or might be’ in order to provide a ’physiognomic image of an age’.〔10〕As for Arbus, she also carried out a certain anthropological documentation of archetypes of a certain era, with eccentrics in majority. To a great extent, this was a pioneering practice. Andy Warhol has pointed out that Arbus had taken on photographing transvestites in the early sixties when they still represented a socialsexual phenomenon ( they were not accepted in the circle of freaks until 1967) ; Arbus’ enterprise was ahead of the time since she already associated their sexual identification to issues such as ‘nature’, ‘personality’ and ‘style’.〔11〕

Further, the radical work of Arbus symbolized a certain shift in the spirit of the time, which is sharply demonstrated through Sontag’s comparison between Arbus’ work and the exhibition ‘Family of Man’ organized by Edward Steichen in 1955 in MOMA ( the show also featured a work by the Arbuses ). ‘Family of Man’ presented more than five hundred photos by two hundred seventy-three photographers coming from sixty-eight countries. The images showed people of different parts of the globe, of different ages, races, classes, physical types… The exhibition revealed itself as an ode for all humankind. According to Sontag, the exhibition proposed a ’pious uplift’ through ‘universalizing the human condition, into joy’ whereas Arbus’ retrospective ( held in 1972 in MOMA) represented a ‘cool defection’ by ‘atomizing’ the human condition ‘into horror’.〔12〕Such a contrast also corresponds to Sontag’s opposition of the spirits of two epochs:’The Arbus photographs convey the anti-humanist message which people of good will in the 1970s are eager to be troubled by, just as they wished, in the 1950s, to be consoled and distracted by a sentimental humanism .’〔13〕Both shown in MOMA with an interval of seventeen years, the two entirely different photographic corpuses attracted countless viewers. Arbus’ retrospective then toured in America and Canada and attracted more than 7.25 million visitors. Also in 1972, Arbus was the first photographer to represent the U.S. in the Venice Biennial. While Arbus’ work came to attract much attention and obtained an important place in the art world, her legend left after her death lingered till recent years when her family finally released many of her works to the public. In October 2003, in the grand retrospective ‘Diane Arbus Revelations’ in San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, many of Arbus’ photos were seen by the public for the first time.

Even with a distance of some decades, the unsettling yet inspirational vision of Arbus as incarnated in her images still touches us deeply. Just like these words from her, ‘A photo is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.’〔14〕

A review of ‘Diane Arbus Revelations’
Arbus’ retrospective in Jeu de Paume


1. Conversation bewtween Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz, in Bystander: A History of Street Photography.

2. Ibid.

3. See Patricia Bosworth, Diane Arbus : A Biography, W. W. Norton & Company, 2006.

4. ’America, Seen through Photography, Darkly’, in On Photography, Picardie, 1990,p. 35.

5. Arthur Lubow, ‘Arbus Reconsidered’, New York Times, September 14, 2003.

6. See note 3.

7. See note 1.

8. See note 3.

9. See my article on Robert Frank’s work (Chinese version) :

10. See note 5.

11. See note 3.

12. See note 4, p. 33.

13. See note 4, p. 32~33.

14. See note 3.

(*First published in Art Taipei Forum Media,, 9th Jan, 2012.)


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