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All content copyright 2010 by Chelsea Biondolillo. Seriously.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

An essay without an audience, or Freaks: Retro Edition

I waited too long. I knew it could happen: I would drag my heels so long on the photography essay that the job would fill in the meantime. And so it has.

But here is the result: a nice little essay on Diane Arbus after the jump. She was always one of my favorites while I was studying photography in college.


B. 1923
D. 1971

Married: Allen Arbus, 1941-1969
Children: Doon Arbus, 1945; Amy Arbus, 1954

“Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot,” wrote Diane Arbus. And indeed, she is still remembered by many as the photographer of people outside of the sphere that many consider 'normal.' Circus performers, the mentally and physically handicapped, and transvestites were some of her favorite subjects. Unlike many who would imitate her style, Arbus sought a connection with her subjects, often spending hours with them before taking their picture. When we look at one of her disconcerting photographs, we are seeing the chasm that stretches between the viewer and the viewed—and we are learning a bit about the woman who would cross it.

Diane (pronounced “Dee-ann”) was born in New York to wealthy parents. She married her childhood sweetheart, Allen Arbus when she was just 18. The two would open their own photography studio and get their start with fashion shoots for Diane's father's furrier store. Allen was the picture taker during those years, while Diane would arrange shots, coach models, and organize the studio. It wasn't until she and Allen personally and professionally separated in 1959 that she began taking her own pictures in earnest. She was 36. Her shift from fashion photography to portraiture was guided by a class she took with Lisette Model, a European photographer, who urged her to explore more thoroughly her interest in unusual and awkward subjects. Under Model's tutelage, she also gained technical prowess—her later work shows a more subtle hand with smoother contrasts and stronger compositions.

When she was 48, Diane Arbus committed suicide. While some considered the dark nature of her portraiture as a foreshadowing to her death, others describe her as often lively and enthusiastically pursuing a subject matter toward which she felt a strong connection.

Major Contributions
During her years of solo work, Diane Arbus did a substantial amount of commercial work for Esquire, Harper's Bazaar, and Show magazines. These portraits, of personalities that were known well to her audience, such as Norman Mailer or Mae West, always managed to capture an expression or posture that highlighted the more human characteristics of her subject. She was able to wait, and draw out the moment when her subject's guard was down. Or as Mailer would say later, “Giving a camera to Diane Arbus is like giving a hand grenade to a baby,” encapsulating his affront on seeing her picture of him looking especially self-satisfied.

To pursue her personal work, she received Guggenheim Fellowships in 1963 and 1966. She continued to develop her unorthodox portrait style, and explore further populations of odd or unusual subjects. In 1967, her work was featured in the show “New Documents” at the Museum of Modern Art, which was meant to present the visual side of the New Journalism movement. Led, voluntarily or not Thomas Wolfe, New Journalism distinguished itself with opaque subjectivity—previously verboten in journalism. The writers and photographers in the new manner wanted not just to cover a story, but to become a part of it. And Diane, who would sit in the boudoir of a cross-dresser for hours eating birthday cake or at the stage door steps playing cards with midgets on break from the circus, definitely met the criteria.

Style / Technique
In the early 50's, Diane Arbus' photographs had a grainy, documentary quality, in the style of Cartier-Bresson. The contrast is high, like one sees in newspaper black and whites, there are few gray tones. But in 1956, something changed. She took a class with Lisette Model, a brash and dramatic European photographer who urged Diane to have more faith in her own approach, and in the subjects that drew her interest. This new confidence, as well as increased technical knowledge, imbued her work with a greater tonal scale and emotional charge.

The strength of her new work came with controversies. In 1973, Susan Sontag wrote a scathing and enduring critique of Arbus, calling her photography voyeuristic at best and nihilistic at worst. Rather than showing a revealing moment, between her subject's inner and outer world, Arbus—according to Sontag—suggests “a world in which everybody is alien, hopelessly isolated, immobilized in mechanical, crippled identities and relationships.”

Her most famous photographs: a giant towering over his hapless parents; two unlike identical twins; a cross-dresser in curlers; a young boy with a toy hand grenade, arrest the viewer and incite an emotional response. For some it may be revulsion, for others, sympathy. Diane herself doesn't judge her viewer; her photographs don't proselytize or persuade. Instead, they offer a glimpse into the mind of a woman seeking to connect. What we are left: the picture—is her proof of that connection.

Collected Works
Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph, 1972 (ed. by Doon Arbus)
Diane Arbus: Magazine Work, 1984 (ed. Doon Arbus and Marvin Israel)

Diane Arbus: The Photographic Work:
Daniel Oppenheimer, “Diane Arbus”:
Arthur Lubow, “Arbus Reconsidered”:

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