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〕

〔Extract from the original text〕

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〕


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.



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