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Diane Arbus (1923 - 1971)

It's often said that Diane Arbus was concerned with photographing outsiders, people on the margins, oddballs. But that's not the case, because she was really photographing everyone, or more specifically the state of humanity in 1960's America, and just found the greatest potential for clearly articulating certain themes by training her lens on the fringes of that society.

Her images are indeed of odd people. But everbody is odd and has a self-image that is different to the one people really see. Arbus exposed this gap, between how people see themselves and how they really are. This is quite a subtle thing to portray, which is why is she felt compelled to seek out the people amongst whom it is most exaggerated: the 'outsiders' and 'oddballs' of 1960's America.

Diane Arbus was born in 1953, in New York USA. She began her career as a fashion photographer, alongside her husband Allan Arbus, and gained success shooting for Glamour and Vogue. But she was fortunate enough to have the brilliant Lisette Model as a tutor, whose advice to turn freelance she took at age 35.

Arbus immediately set about photographing the world as she saw it, not as a product for fashion magazines. Although her work speaks of the deep divisions, confusion, protest and change that characterized 1960's America, the themes are really universal.

Old women with very heavily applied make-up, children in dance competitions, bodybuilders, competition winners, prostitutes, transvestities, circus performers and so on. These are all people who construct a self-image that they desperately try to present to the world, but is shown to be a wafer thin veneer by the piercing observation of Arbus' camera.

Many of her images feature people wearing a mask, whether as part of a performance or fancy dress at a party. But every one of her subjects is wearing a mask of some kind, whether literal of figurative, and some are more obvious than others. There's the old lady in a wheelchair with a halloween mask; there are the transvestites covered in make-up, captured at just the moment that their masculinity, and the vulgarity and sadness of their make-up, is most obvious; there is the young couple on Hudson street, neither older than 13, but with the clothes and disposition of a middle-aged couple.

It's this constant jarring between intention and effect on the part of her subjects that makes Arbus' work so compelling. None of them are who they want to be believed to be. Somehow photogaphy seems like a very powerful way of exposing this, at least in the hands of Arbus. There is nothing thay can be done to preserve the intended self-presentation once these images have been seen; it's just been blown away as sad, hollow, sometimes slightly disgusting fallacy.

The more subtle this exposition of human reality becomes, the more we, as the viewer, are forced to look at our own self-image. Everyone catches sight of themselves sometimes - reflected in a window, on a homevideo, in a photograph - and realizes they are not at all the person they envision within their own mind. It happens to all of us. Arbus bursts the bubble more emphatically, and in a way more telling of the society in which she lived, than any of her contemporaries. You really would not have wanted her as your wedding photographer!

Arbus achieved considerable recognition during her freelance career, culminating in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But her body of work spans only 13 years, because she tragically took her own life in 1971 at the age of just 48. Arbus's work is much more than just a documentation of odd characters from 1960's America, though it does capture many of the insecurities of US society at that time. It is a tragi-comic represenation of universal human frailty that is just as enlightening today as it was during her lifetime.


Diane Arbus gallery...

Untitled Document

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