Diane Arbus (1923-1971) was an American photographer who, according to Wikipedia (!) ‘worked to normalise marginalised groups and highlight the importance of proper representation of all people’. (Wikipedia contributors, 2019). Her work has become controversial simply because of that. She called the people she photographed her ‘singular people’ and they were often different, disabled (both physically and mentally) or had other things that set them aside from high society: nudists, transvestites, Jews. Her images are often stark, usually graphic and highly revealing. I have looked at her work before in Self Evidence – Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe (after seeing an exhibition) and Reading Images (in response to a research question).
Over years I have worked with people with a range of disabilities similar to those Arbus photographed and find her images both disturbing and tender. How I interpret them depends on my mood. On one day I think “How could she” and on another I think “that is perfect”. In the book ‘diane arbus’ (Arbus and Arbus, 1990) she is quoted as saying, “You see someone on the street and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw” and “there are certain evasions, certain nicenesses that I think you have to get out of” and “Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot. It was one of the first things I photographed and it had a terrific kind of excitement for me…. they made me feel a mixture of shame and awe…. they’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats” and “I work from awkwardness, by that I mean I don’t like to arrange things. If I stand in front of something instead of arranging it, I arrange myself”. On looking though the images in that book the odd thing that struck me was that the happiest, and most honest, smiles were in the images of the people with learning disabilities.
Her images are black and white (although colour film was available), square format (a Rollei) and usually low key. Often the most important part of the image is dark. Most of the portraits are taken full face on, with the subject looking straight at her – has she actually arranged them? Or is this just how people expect to be photographed?
She gave the marginalised people a voice, whether or not it was a voice that they would have chosen is an interesting question, but a least she engaged with them rather than ignoring them.
Arbus, D. and Arbus, D. (1990). Diane Arbus. London: Bloomsbury.
Wikipedia Contributors (2019). Diane Arbus. [online] Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diane_Arbus [Accessed 25 Mar. 2019].