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Discovering Arbus


A short article by Stella Wilson.  NMIT 2018.

Arbus was a photographer based in New York City (NYC) who took photos in the nineteen sixties and seventies. She is famous for portraits of individual characters such as dwarves, transvestites, nudists, and troubled children.  Arbus is mostly known for her very quirky perception of the world, rather than for how she was perceived by others.  Her photographs were not necessarily flattering of her subjects. In fact they were often quite exposing or aesthetically un-pleasing and were sometimes even considered offensive.  Lisette Model who was Arbus’s teacher and early influence, was unsure if she should release such controversial content. Why did Arbus take such an interest in outcasts?  She did not look like one on the surface.  Arbus was born in 1923 in NYC, and was raised in a wealthy Jewish family who supported her artistic abilities from a young age, however she felt alienated as a child.  This alienation is reflected in her work, the background is usually open, airy and lonely, and the individuals often seem disconnected.  The photographs express an eerily air of discomfort.    

Arthur Lubow, author of Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer, writes, ‘As children, we’re told not to stare. Diane Arbus did not give a stuff; she stared at what she called “freaks.”’This, obviously, makes the viewer question what Arbus is trying to say.  What was she trying to tell us?

Image: Transvestite at her birthday party, NYC 1969.  From Pinterest.com

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/photography/what-to-see/incest-suicide–and-the-real-reason-we-should-remember-diane-arb/  (accessed 24th may, 2018)

Her photographs are the opposite of discreet, and can feel like a provocation.  But who is provoking who?  In fact, she said “I’ve always thought of photography as a naughty thing to do – that was one of my favourite things about it and when I first did it, i felt very perverse”2.   Is there a victim in this scenario?   One of Arbus’s most famous quotes are ‘Take pictures of what you fear’.  But Isn’t that a little insulting?  What was Arbus recognising in others that she saw in herself?  Does this mean that Arbus was afraid of lady impersonators, children and dwarves? It is definitely controversial.  Arbus quoted in her book that she felt “two – faced” in her interactions with her subjects. She admitted that in a way, she was just sidling up to them to take a picture.

Personally, I’m always left with many more questions than answers when viewing her work. Arbus quotes, “There are always two things that happen.  One is recognition and the other is that it’s totally peculiar.  But there’s some sense in which I always identify with them.”  She also quotes ” ….there’s a point between what you want people to know about you and what you can’t help people knowing about you. The gap between intention and effect.”3

 Arbus claimed to hate her work most of her life, a majority of her famous photographs weren’t even developed until after her death. Arbus overdosed at the age of forty, in nineteen seventy one. When she died she left no note.

Lubow writes, ‘The photographer wasn’t stealing souls – far from it; she must give something of herself, too.’

2 -Alina, Yuri, Kate, Artem, Samson, & Darya. (n.d.). Diane Arbus Quotes Quotations. QuotesGram. Retrieved from /https://quotesgram.com/diane-arbus-quotes-quotations/

3 –  Diane Arbus, An Aperture Monograph, page 1 paragraph 3. Arbus, D., & Arbus, D. (1972). Diane Arbus, an Aperture Monograph (p. 1). New York, NY: Museum of Modern Art.


A Child Crying, New Jersey 1976http://coffeevogue.blogspot.com/2014/03/diane-arbus.html

In nineteen seventy-two, Arbus was chosen as the first artist to represent the United States of America at the Venice Biennale, a year after her death. She was featured in the Museum of Modern Art which celebrated new points of view in documentary photography.  Her work was also featured in the New York Times and is referred to as ‘edgy’.  In the nineteen sixties and seventies, advertising  became a predominant photographic record of the culture of the times.  Billboards, magazines and art gave the public many images of idealised perfection to aspire to (this is still evident today).  What is admirable about Arbus’s work is that it is confrontational. She presents convincing but bizarre, alternate realities in her images.  Images that contradict the dominant culture of advertising.  Since she started her photography career in  a magazine with her husband and hated it, it is maybe understandable she took that stance.

 “The meaning of these pictures has been missed by those who have not seen that in them (as in those that she made of the rest of us) her true subject was no less than the unique interior lives of those she photographed. Her most frequent subject was in fact children, perhaps because their individuality is purer, less skillfully concealed, closer to the surface.” 4  says a writer at MOMA.   This is a rather opposite, not so harsh opinion on her work, but I still think it has some truth in it.


Museum of Modern Art. Last modified November 6, 1972. Moma_press-release_326816.pdf

Arbus’s daughter Doon got together with Arbus’s lover, Marvin Israel, and they designed her aftermath. It may or may not have been complicated by the fact that Doon and Israel were also lovers long before Arbus’s death.  Arbus used to experiment sexually with her brother when they were children, and the siblings continued to have sex throughout her life. The last occasion, Lubow asserts, was two weeks before Arbus’s death.   But who knows if this is the truth – whether Arbus really said it or if some rumour was made up after her death?   It makes me question whether this information links up to her work.  Why she captures ‘freaks’ as she calls her subjects – is this Arbus normalizing her own freakish behaviour in her own head?

There isn’t much information about her relationships with her two daughters – nor any photos of them –  thanks to the gatekeeping of her daughter  Doon.  Again questions arise surrounding Arbus’s personal life.  What was her relationship like with her daughters, considering one of them got together with her lover?  Did this cause a strain on their relationship?

Doon described her mother’s photographs as the result of “a kind of mutual seduction”.   Meaning that the relationship between her mother (as photographer) and the outcasts wanting their portraits taken, is one of mutual consent.  Although Arbus also admitted, that “I think it does, a little, hurt to be photographed.” “‘A little”  probably being an understatement.  Arbus did not like having her photo taken herself.  Her photos are usually grainy, imprecise and often taken from unusual angles e.g. from around a corner or crouching down, usually in public places – where she cant be seen, often in the dark or in crowds.  Masks where a reoccuring theme in her work.  Maybe its linked with her subject ‘fears’?

A Jewish giant at home with his parents in The Bronx, 1970 https://www.pinterest.com/giacomopandiani/diane-arbus/

In conclusion, I have discovered Arbus is arguably one of the most influential North American photographers. Her work is confronting to the conventional standards by mistakenly proving how freaks are as normal as we are. Of course, that’s not our first instinct, as the photographs invite us to look twice. Maybe even stare like Arbus did.

All we can really learn is based on what the photographer left behind. A photograph, according to Arbus, is “like a stain”. “You can turn away but when you come back they’ll still be there looking at you.”


This blog is part of the NMIT Blog Network. The articles and comments in this blog are the opinion of the authors and not necessarily those of NMIT.