Some call her a photographer of freaks, some called her an artist, and still others call her a photographic genius who was ahead of her time. Although her career was cut short by the tragedy of suicide in 1971, Diane Arbus is often placed among the great photographers of the 20th century. She made a name for herself photographing the people no one really wanted to see, the outcasts of society, the ones who make us uncomfortable. In her images, she dares us not to look away. There is no barrier of comfort or, in some cases, even propriety between us and the subjects of her portraits.
Arbus’s career as a photographer seemed to be almost driven by a need to look for the reality she had missed growing up. She needed to see and feel life as it was really lived. Although she was born in 1923, she did not have to suffer through the Great Depression like most. Her parents owned Russeks, an upscale department store on 5th Avenue in New York and she grew up in an upper class Central Park apartment. She was raised with nannies, butlers, maids, and chauffeurs. These other adults in her life almost took the place of her parents, who were rarely there, physically or emotionally. She would often talk of her childhood as having a sense of unreality. “The family fortune always seemed to me humiliating. It was like being a princess in some loathsome movie set in some kind of Transylvanian obscure Middle European country.”
At the age of 14 she met the man who would start her in her career as a photographer. Allan Arbus was just 19 and working at her parents’ store in the art department when they met and, almost immediately, fell in love. Her parents tried to keep them apart to no avail. They secretly married as soon as she turned 18 and Allan was off to fight in WWII. He was a photographer in the Army and when he returned, he and Diane decided to open a photography business. Not wanting their daughter to struggle, her parents helped them out by hiring them to do advertising shoots for Russeks. Diane would come up with all of the concepts, while Allan was in charge of the technical side. He always told her she was the talent, although she never fully believed him.
After a decade of working in the fashion and advertising world, Diane decided it was too much. She said it was too stressful and she wanted out of the business in order to start working on her own projects. That was soon followed by a marital separation, although she and Allan would remain friends until the end of her life. This separation gave her the freedom to shoot subjects that interested her and to develop her own photographic style. Allan said, “I always felt that it was our separation that made her a photographer. I couldn’t have stood for her going to the places she did. She’d go to bars on the Bowery and to people’s houses. I would have been horrified.” As a side note, Allan Arbus left photography to become an actor in LA, and was most well-known for the role of Dr. Sidney Freedman, on M.A.S.H.
Diane took classes with famed photographer Lisette Model. Arbus learned her most important lesson from Model, which was not to let fear stand in her way and to believe in her talent. Model was an independent and aggressive woman, the exact opposite of Arbus. Arbus used this time to develop her own self-confidence and began to use her fear of people to stimulate her vision as a photographer. For the rest of her life, she would talk about photography as an adventure and her fear as a stimulus.
Motivated by this new-found confidence, she began to frequent the places that would make her infamous as a photographer. She went to Hubert’s Freak Museum in Times Square, Coney Island, gay nightclubs, a nudist camp, and an institution for the “mentally retarded”. She found a way to talk to everyone, spending time with each person, sometimes for weeks, before starting to shoot. She took each person on their own terms. According to Marvin Israel, who was her friend and eventual lover, ”It could be argued that for Diane the most valuable thing wasn’t the photograph itself, the art object; it was the event, the experience… The photograph is like her trophy — it’s what she received as the reward for this adventure.”
Arbus said of her pictures, “What I’m trying to describe is that it’s impossible to get out of your skin into somebody else’s… That somebody else’s tragedy is not the same as your own.” She admired the people most considered to be “freaks” saying, “Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. [These people] were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.” She seemed to have immense respect for her subjects. To her, the photographs weren’t exploiting them, but showing us that they are us. She solidifies that philosophy in her street photography of “ordinary” people where they really don’t look much different. She is showing us the mask that most of us wear and how silly it really looks. She makes it blatantly obvious that we all look a little awkward, pretending to be someone we are not.
Her career took off when Esquire magazine published six of her photos in the July 1960 issue. For the next eleven years she published over 250 photographs in more than 70 articles, in magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar, New York, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, and The Saturday Evening Post. She also had several shows at the Museum of Modern Art and was awarded two Guggenheim fellowships in 1963 and 1966.
Sadly, Arbus, like her mother, fought depression for most of her life. Photography seemed to give her a temporary escape from the hole she found herself sinking into. But, eventually, it caught up to her and on July 26, 1971, at the age of 48, she took an overdose of barbiturates and then cut her wrists. What she left behind was a body of work that forces us to ask our own questions about our humanity, the masks we wear, and our own voyeuristic tendencies. Diane Arbus may have been someone that makes us uncomfortable, but I think she knew that. She wanted us, more than anything, to see what she saw; that underneath it all, we are all the same.
BOOKS: Diane Arbus