Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Diane Arbus: 'strange and obscurely troubling'

During a bout of depression in 1971, photographer Diane Arbus committed suicide. She was 48.  MOMA soon held a retrospective of her work, and it became the most attended solo photography exhibition in its history. In On Photography, Susan Sontag used her work to explore the medium's politics and ethics, and today Arbus remains a figure of fascination, subject to endless speculation.
Judith Thurman writes of Arbus, "Her heritage was, in fact, that of most artistic children of privilege, who feel that their true selves are invisible, while resenting the dutiful, false selves for which they are loved: a dilemma that inspires the quest, in whatever medium, for a reflection.".... She was luminous, with large green eyes, a delicate, exotic face and a slim body. And she was, writes Thurman, "nubile" (almost every published photo of her has a sexual charge to it). All kinds of people were captivated by her, and she was captivated by all kinds of people.... By the early '60s, her commercial portraits, for magazines such as Esquire and Harper's Bazaar , began to assume a distinctive look. Though taken of mainly traditional subjects—actors, writers, activists—they were strange and obscurely troubling. She would spend hours with her subjects, following them to their homes or offices, talking and listening to them, trying to soften them up to the point where they began to drop their public façade.—Daniel Oppenheimer, Jewish Virtual Library
"A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know."
This short film's footage of Arbus's daughter talking about her mother just after her death goes a long way toward dispelling stereotypes and illuminating what made her tick. She comes across as a very humane and complex person in her daughter's reminiscences as well as in readings from her journals, illustrated by her photographs. (The rest of the documentary can be seen on youtube.)

Interest in Arbus continues unabated: witness the 2011 psychobiography An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus. To go to the source and form your own opinions, you can view a slideshow of her most famous images here. For further reading/viewing we have Hubert's Freaks: The Rare Book Dealer, the Times Square Talker, and the Lost Photos of Diane Arbus and  Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus
Shall we let her have the last word?
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 do 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.  
[more photos after the jump]



  1. I absolutely love Arbus! We truly lost a genius when she left us. Though so many to choose from, my far and away favorite would be
    "Patriotic young man with a flag in 1967 (assuming it's even the title:)." So intense and shocking... Great! Also, check out her auction stuff on Christie's! Anyone wanna lend me $3000, haha...

  2. Arbus was a true genius. Her name must be mentioned alongside the other greats of the 20th century - she revolutionized photoraphy as art.

  3. Goodness I just google imaged her name and the photo's that popped up, wow INTENSE!!! I love the photo of The Silver FOX, Anderson Cooper as a baby.

  4. Such great work! I enjoy black and white prints sometimes more than color. These are stunning.

  5. My favorite today is the lady with the poodle & the buddha & the pose & the over the top carpet!