Unlike most people, who “go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience,” the “freaks” that interested Diane Arbus “were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They're aristocrats.” Although this is how Arbus explained her attraction to carnival entertainers, we might imagine her using similar language to describe people of unusually large or small stature, nudists, those with developmental disabilities, drag performers, and many others who appear regularly in her portraits.
Arbus typically gave her subjects the opportunity to present themselves as they saw fit. Starting in 1962, she used medium-format cameras that were held at the waist—she looked down into the viewfinder so nothing came between her face and that of her subject. The intimacy of this kind of photographic encounter could inform the confidence and self-possession we see in figures like the poised Naked Man Being a Woman, New York City (1968) or Burlesque Comedienne in Her Dressing Room, Atlantic City, New Jersey (1963). On other occasions, Arbus seems to reveal a precariousness hidden beneath the surface of life in the cultural mainstream. Her images of those who wield social power or simply appear to be secure, like the patriotic Boy with a Straw Hat Waiting to March in a Pro-War Parade, New York City (1967), are often subtly disquieting.
Arbus’s interest in the experiences of people across the social spectrum may have emerged from her own childhood. She grew up in a wealthy family, and felt shielded from the effects of the Great Depression. This experience of privilege was distressing: “it was like being a princess in some loathsome movie…and the kingdom was so humiliating.” Perhaps because Arbus believed that she had not been sufficiently tested by adversity, she sought it out in the world around her. This personal investment in her chosen subject matter, however, did not lead Arbus to editorialize or make judgements. She typically avoided cropping her photographs for emphasis, and instead printed the entire negative, a choice registered by irregular black borders surrounding the image. “For me the subject of the picture is always more important than the picture,” she said. “And more complicated.”
One of Arbus’s creative touchstones was August Sander, who produced hundreds of photographic portraits documenting the citizens—and the social structure—of Weimar Germany. Arbus drew on the visual language of Sander’s frank and carefully composed images, whose subjects forcefully inhabit their place in society. Sander often highlighted some sign of the sitter’s vocation, like a bricklayer’s materials or a potter’s wheel, suggesting that identity is a social fact that can be made clear by an individual’s self-presentation. Arbus’s photographs seem more ambiguous, and are extraordinarily sensitive to what she called “the gap between intention and effect”: the distinction between what we try to communicate about ourselves and what is perceived by others.
Although Arbus was skeptical of popular praise and felt ambivalent about displaying her work, she came to occupy a central position in the art world of the late 1960s. This was partly thanks to the support of John Szarkowski, then the director of MoMA’s Department of Photography, who featured her alongside Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand in the influential 1967 exhibition New Documents. Szarkowski’s description of the show’s contents could serve as an account of Arbus’s project in particular: “a new generation of photographers has redirected the documentary approach toward more personal ends…. Their work betrays a sympathy—almost an affection—for the imperfections and frailties of society. They like the real world, in spite of its terrors, as the source of all wonder and fascination and value.”
In 1971, Arbus took her own life. Her photographs, however, continue to exert a powerful influence. For decades, artists like Nan Goldin, Judith Joy Ross, and Deana Lawson have been nourished by Arbus’s restless attraction to the unfamiliar and her refusal to offer judgement or easy answers. As Arbus herself famously put it, “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.”
Benjamin Clifford, 12-Month Intern, The Robert B. Menschel Department of Photography
The research for this text was supported by a generous grant from The Modern Women's Fund.