In 1971, Norman Mailer said that “giving a camera to Diane Arbus is like giving a grenade to a child”. This comment of his was perfectly right, directly related to one of Arbus’ most famous photographs, which she is keeping in the above picture as if it is her autobiography. More importantly, though, Mailer managed to point out the tendency of the famous photographer towards a kind of photographic content which was disapproved by many; a photographic content which we are invoked to judge and be judged through today. Who was Diane Arbus and what can we understand from the way she looked through the lens seconds before the sound of the shutter is heard?
Diane Arbus was born in 14 March 1923. Although her first contact with photography took place in the fashion world, as she and her husband Allan Arbus had founded an advertising company, it didn’t take her long to realize that she didn’t belong in that world of photography. In 1956 she quit her job and took up photography lessons next to Lisette Model. She taught her how to handle a camera both technically and emotionally, until one day she mentioned that “Diane suddenly stopped listening to me and started listening to herself”. In this way, Diane’s very own self led her to a photographic route that had remained unknown for her till then.
Her photographs are primarily characterized by people who in a way look at you through their own photograph. One of her most well known photographs, entitled “Identical Twins” is an exception to her photographic rules, since many of her photographs lack composition or geometry, unlike the photographs from the portfolio of Bresson which we came across in a previous article. However, Arbus herself has her own secrets.
“I hate the idea of composition. I don’t know what good composition is. I mean I guess I must know something about it from doing it a lot and feeling my way into and into what I like. Sometimes for me composition has to do with a certain brightness or a certain coming to rightness and other times it has to do with funny mistakes. There’s a kind of rightness and wrongness and sometimes I like rightness and sometimes I like wrongness. Composition is like that.”
What makes her photographic work even more special and human oriented is her ability to capture the space between “the way one is and the way others think he is”. Arbus chooses the topic of her photographs in a peculiar way and breaking all the photographic rules she diminishes the distance between her lens and the protagonists. Eccentric protagonists appear in front of her lens and create a paradox between the photograph and reality.
Ambiguous and provocative in her work, she chooses to expose the souls of all those who we call freaks in cruel reality. But in the world of Arbus’ photography horror and insecurity exist only on the faces of “normal” people. On the contrary, “freaks” appear before the camera feeling impressively comfortable, without having something to hide from the photographer.
“Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot. It was one of the first things I photographed and it had a terrific kind of excitement for me. I just used to adore them. I still adore some of them, I don’t quite mean they’re my best friends but they made me feel a mixture of shame and awe...
...There’s a quality of legend about freaks. Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. 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.”
During her last years she chooses the daily life of patients of a psychiatric institute as a farewell.
Diane Arbus ended her life on 26 April 1971, at the age of 48. There have been many reports about depression incidents and guesses concerning why such a charismatic photographer would end her life at such a young age. However, her photographs may be seen as a guide in order for us to realize what she thought about the world and what her artistic worries may have been; worries that may have led her to her very own end. Nevertheless, such question cannot be answered and will always remain a mystery. Arbus had once said:
"A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know."
* translated from Greek by Adamantia Zafiropoulou
Arbus, Diane. "Diane Arbus". Millerton, New York: Aperture, 1972
Armstrong, Carol. "Biology, Destiny, Photography: Difference According to Diane Arbus". October, volume 66, pages 28–54, Autumn 1993.
Bosworth, Patricia. "Diane Arbus: a Biography". New York: W. W. Norton, 2005. Page 250
DeCarlo, Tessa. "A Fresh Look at Diane Arbus"
Hume, Christopher. "Photography's Tragic Poet of the Bizarre". Toronto Star, January 11, 1991
Segal, David. "Double Exposure: a Moment with Diane Arbus Created a Lasting Impression". The Washington Post, May 12, 2005