(4/55) Diane Arbus - photographer


The facts about Diane Arbus life are well known. Born March 14, 1923 (the same year as Richard Avedon) & died July 26, 1971. Unlike many artists, she wasn't born in tough or poor circumstances and on the face of it, had many advantages other artists of her generation lacked. But the silver spoon didn't seem to help bring personal happiness or solace during her short but intensive career.

Born Diane Nemerov, her parents (the Nemerovs) lived in New York City and owned Russek's, a Fifth Avenue department store. Despite her family's business success, many family members found other outlets for their creative interests.
After retiring from Russek's, her father became a painter, her younger sister became a sculptor & designer; and her older brother, Howard Nemerov, became United States Poet Laureate;

Diane Arbus married young to Allan Arbus. As a 2 person photography business, their work appeared in a range of major fashion magazines. But unlike members of her family, the business & practice of this form of highly commercial photography didn't suit her.

Following studies with Berenice Abbott (& perhaps more significantly) Lisette Model, she left the business she was in with her husband in the late 1950's. Her work began to change, slowly developing a signature style, as she switched from using a 35mm Nikon camera to the medium format Rolleiflex camera which produced sharp, square images.



Diane Arbus by Garry Winogrand

In terms of success, Arbus did remarkably well in a few short years. In 1963, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for a project on "American rites, manners, and customs"; which was renewed in 1966. A year later, her photographs appeared at the Museum of Modern Art in the "New Documents" show alongside photographs by Garry Winogrand & Lee Friedlander.

In terms of working life, Arbus worked for a range of magazines, making pictures that pushed boundaries in terms of what was 'acceptable' in terms of subject matter. Some of these photographs also served her as 'real'  artistic works. She also worked as a photography teacher in New York at the Parsons School of Design & Cooper Union in New York City, and the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island.

But exactly what kinds of photograph was she making? And why were they so well regarded?

Her photographs very roughly comprised 2 different types:  a quizzical not particularly sympathetic  look at the lives of 'ordinary people', primarily in & around her native New York. And a patient , often sympathetic view of marginalized folk on the margins of 'acceptable' society.

A strange & potent mix. The photographs she was taking clearly weren't documentary in the literal sense. The framing, the use of lighting, particularly the use of a harsh flash light  made them uneasy but strangely compelling viewing. They looked like 'art', but had the surface 'feel' of something made quickly.


Consider the photograph: A Child Crying, New Jersey 1967.

The anguish of the child, the tears on the cheek, the tears welling up in the eyes all point to the almost audible sobbing that is evident in every pore of this unfortunate child's face. Before Arbus, only perhaps a family relative might have taken a photography like this. It's simply too close, too personal.
It's almost unbearable.

But that's the point. She's closed the 'polite' distance that many a photographer would refrain from breaching. What's been revealed is something quite special. A photograph of an emotion and also a psychological portrait of anguish & pain.

I'm reminded of a comment Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons made against accusations of violence and mistreatment of characters on his TV show. He said they're 'just drawings'. And they are. It's the emotional investment that we have as viewers to the characters, that makes them seem so much more than 'just' drawings.

And so it is with this image. It's just a photograph. One single instance of a baby crying. The tears would not last. The pain, so well captured, is likely a fleeting reaction to some minor incident.
Perhaps lack of food. Or attention.


It's not a photograph of war. Or horror. Or violence. Or bloodshed. It just seems for a moment, that the drama shows more, makes us feel more, than is actually shown.

Her photographs continue to provoke interest & discussion, long after the photographer who made them, had died. (see below for more)
 
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One last point. The last series of photographs Arbus took showed groups of disabled people.
They're an odd group of photographs. They're taken in natural light. Most of them are not close-up portraits and they're not particularly kind

It's difficult to know why she took them. Evidently, she had mixed feelings about them herself. In the search for ever more outlandish spectacles, perhaps this is as far as she felt able to go.
She'd photographed physical deformity, and a wide range of sub-cultures. She wasn't a stranger to 'difficult' subject matter but these last photographs seem different. And seem to leave a slightly bitter aftertaste for even the most ardent fan of her work.
As if she was seeing just how far she could go in terms of breaking taboos.

Arbus committed suicide in 1971 so we don't know what kinds of pictures she would have made if she was still with us. This series of photographs, as difficult to look at as they are, suggest she had reached the end of one particular way of working. It's anyone's guess what she would have done next.
 




All photographs copyright original copyright owners
All text copyright Nick Lloyd 2012
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