The Perfect Flaws of Diane Arbus

Although tragically departing from us at the way too early age of 48, Diane Arbus left one of the most significant stamps on the development of modern documentary photography. Paying attention to the outcasts and marginal while utilizing her lens to capture the striking and the strange, Arbus framed an entirely new way of approaching photography. Diane Arbus’s photography inheres a special kind of quality that’s at the same time both repelling and irresistible, intimate yet firmly observant, emotionally instigating yet emotionally detached. This is a little insight into the motivations, techniques, and stories behind the work of this truly compelling photo artist.

 Diane Arbus: Still Splitting the Public

source: hammer.ucla.edu

Though Diane Nemerov (her name of origin) was born in a considerably wealthy family, she was fascinated by poverty and its consequences from very early on. The future photographer is said to have been equally fascinated by the astonishing scenery from their 11-th floor apartment which, in turn, led to numerous occasions of young Diane conquering the ledges only to have her mother take her away moments before anything tragic had taken place. Witty, pretty and with a certain, offbeat edge, Diane was a subject of adoration for the teachers of Ethical Culture Fieldston School, who were collectively charmed by the quirks of the gifted young lady.

Diane Arbus: Still Splitting the Public

source: http://www.nytimes.com/

Complying with the high standard of recklessness, set by her very own self, Diane Arbus married at the young age of 18 only to start a shared commercial photography business with her husband Allan Arbus shortly afterward. Although by no means a flop, the enterprise paradoxically ceased to exist due to the couple’s shared hatred towards the fashion industry. In all fairness, an equally important role was played by the Arbus’ individual ambition to explore the medium on a new artistic level.

Diane Arbus: Still Splitting the Public. Teenage Couple on Hudson Street

source: http://www.batcol.com/

Beginning with 1956, a completely new ground for photo experiments was already set. Diane was embarking on the promising first stages of her brief yet remarkable career in documentary photography as the photojournalist for Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar. Although a universally recognized and celebrated artist today, with her monograph Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph still being actively reprinted to meet the constant demand, during her heyday she was harshly criticised both by the general public and art critics who often labeled Arbus simply as the photographer of freaks and sexual deviants. In her 1973 critique, Susan Sontag points out that the whole catalog of Arbus’s is based entirely on the safeness provided by distance and privilege whilst the photos themselves represent a kind of fashionable pessimism without any hint of compassion. Needless to say, it was more of a crude trivialisation than a throughout constructive critique, which had a lot to do with the general attitude towards people who seemingly stood out from the category of normality.

Diane Arbus: Still Splitting the Public. A Young Man and his Girlfriend

source: www.photography-now.com

In her own words, the relationships between her and the subjects of her photos were a mixture of shame and awe. Even more so, Arbus viewed them as the spiritual aristocrats, the members of society who, unlike the majority, had already overcome their innate trauma, thus acquiring a kind of venerable quality. Regardless of the person and its peculiarities before the lens, it’s clear that above everything, Diane Arbus used her Mamiya Twin Lens Reflex camera to express adoration first and foremost.

Diane Arbus: Still Splitting the Public. Jack Dracula

source: sangbleumagazine.com

Diane Arbus is noted for her specific method which involves establishing a close emotional bond with the subject of the photography. Thus, it’s no wonder that the prep-work for some of the classic pictures took more than a fair share of her time. However, most of the long-term photo subjects were visited on more than one occasion and were photographed repeatedly over the years. The central mojo of her technique, however, suggests a complete spontaneity over the choice of location and subject – the less control you have over the situation, the better. She often compared going on a photo assignment with going on a blind date. In a sense, a photo adventurism like that can be viewed as a way ahead of its time approach, which consequently shaped the portraiture and street photography as we know them today.

Diane Arbus: Still Splitting the Public. Identical Twins Roselle

source: http://24ilmagazine.ilsole24ore.com/

Amongst the variety of world-renowned works from Arbus’s portfolio, there are some which by many are considered to be synonyms with the modern photography of the 20th century. The duo of sisters seen in the Identical Twins, Roselle, N.J., 1967 with the astonishingly Victorian appeal are said to hunt Stanley Kubrick so much that he eventually ended up paying a tribute to Arbus’s legendary snap in The Shining. Whilst more on the documentary side of things, Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, NY, 1970 is an equally compelling photo, depicting the rather sad state of affairs that Eddie Carmel’s acromegaly had led to at that point. The claustrophobic effect emphasized by Arbus’s choice of composition reveals the tragicomic nature of the situation, yet in no way mocking it.

Diane Arbus: Still Splitting the Public. Jewish Giant at Home

source: www.ucreative.com

Another staple of Arbus’s vast portfolio is the photo entitled Child with toy hand grenade in Central Park, New York City. 1962. This photo features the thin frame of Sidney Wood’s (a legendary tennis player) son Collin Wood. The borderline grotesque facial expression, the clutched palm, and the hand grenade replica works for an incredible social commentary whilst in reality, Collin Woods was simply emulating the look he associated with the then-popular war movies.

Diane Arbus: Still Splitting the Public. Child with Toy Hand-grenade

source: http://www.rafaelroa.net/

In fact, just by taking a quick peek at the contact sheet from this particular photo session, it becomes clear that Collin was just an ordinary boy trying to somehow expressively respond to the lens. However, Collin, who initially hated the photograph, grew to admire it, admitting that it actually caught him in a moment of great exasperation instigated by the divorce of his parents. Frequently used as a reference in popular culture, this striking image, as strange as it may seem, served as the initial inspiration for the character Bart Simpson.

Diane Arbus: Still Splitting the Public. Tiny Tim

source: vamp.com.mt

An interesting yet really expository way to describe Arbus’s method in her own words is to say that she works from the point of awkwardness. The only arrangement taking place is that of herself. The author, in the case of Arbus, is in the position of humility, opened to the story of the subject whilst not disclosing that of her own. Following the advice of her teacher Lisette Model, Diane strived for the specific in order to be more general. Through the subjects seen in her photos, the viewers for the first time were able to see the undocumented reality, an art that recognized human in everybody. The gear Diane used over the course of her career: Nikon F; Rolleiflex; Mamiya C33 (55mm; 80mm; 135mm); Pentax 6×7

Diane Arbus: Still Splitting the Public

source: robertvaningen.com

Diane Arbus was a generous soul, a modern New Yorker, an enigmatic figure who seemed to belong to another era and arguably one of the most radical photographers of the 20th century. She was a shifter of social paradigms and an artist whose bold, uncomprimising demeanor and creative impulse still inspires photographers and thinkers to this day.

And the Documentary of the Day is…