Tag Archives: Diane Arbus

Assignment 2 – Anything You Can Do


The objective of this assignment is to provide you with an opportunity to explore the themes covered in Part Two with regard to the use of both studio and location for the creation of portraits.

This assignment is about taking what has worked from the above exercises and then trying to develop this further in terms of interchanging the use of portraits taken on location (street) with portraits taken inside (studio).

You need to develop a series of five final images to present to the viewer as a themed body of work. Pay close attention to the look and feel of each image and think of how they will work together as a series. The theme is up to you to choose; you could take a series of images of a single subject or a series of subjects in a themed environment. There is no right answer, so experiment.

One of the possibilities I thought about for assignment 2 was to take images of people within their own house, using artificial lighting. My final choice of subject involves this. The room has become the studio. This contrasts with my earlier images for this section which were almost all taken outside with natural light.


I looked at several photographers portrait work for this including Martin Parr, Christophe Agou, Paul Graham, and Walker Evans and also researched work done taking images of people with disabilities such as Louis Quail  in ‘Big Brother’,  Siân Davey with her work on her Down Syndrome daughter in ‘Alice’, Polly Bradon’s work with the learning disabled and people with ASD  in  ‘Out of the Shadows ‘  and ‘Great Interactions’ and Lesley McIntyre’s photoessay on the life of her daughter ‘The Time of Her Life’.  I also looked at Diane Arbus’s somewhat controversial work where she took images in a home for learning disabled people (Diane Arbus).  There is a harrowing film series done by David Hevey on disability which uses the contrasting images of then and now, to tell a part of the story about disability: see David Hevey – The Disabled Century for more information.

Taking pictures of people who are aware of you is discussed further in Project 2 – The aware and Project 2 – The Aware – 2. Most of the work that I found about people with disabilities either involved people with a learning disability, severe mental health problems, or severe physical difficulties.

Background Information:

This series is about a couple who both have autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). This is a condition (I refuse to call it a disability) that I have worked with for many years and, if I have learned anything, I have learned that the people with ASD and their families are not defined by the label. Each person’s story is different, each family’s story is unique, just as for any other person and any other family. To tell the story properly takes time, a lifetime, both yours and theirs. This is just a snapshot.


For this series I took images of a couple with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) and their young child. Janey and Rich were kind enough to invite me into their home and give me permission to use the images.  Unlike most of the work on people with disabilities looked at above neither of them has a learning disability.  Janey is an author, rarely seen without a pencil and a notebook, and Rich works with computers. Their motto is ‘Anything you can do we can do too’ – although, as Janey went on to explain, that does not include working at a busy supermarket till ( but who would really want to do that from choice).


  • I met Janey and Rich in their home. It was the first time I had met Rich, so he was naturally somewhat guarded with me, although eventually relaxed. We spent some time talking and then I simply started taking pictures of their interactions with each other, me and their baby. One of the difficulties people with ASD have is with eye contact, especially with strangers and this is evident in all the images.
  • I used a combination of natural light, the artificial light in their flat and a flash unit.
  • I visualised these images from the start in black and white, partly because it echoed much of the earlier work I had seen and partly because it gives a softer light and timeless feel to the images.


This was a fascinating piece of work to do. It fits within a much longer work I am planning about the lives of people with ASD and that of their families. I am planning to mainly concentrate on work with adults with ASD as little has been done photographically with this group.

The difficulties were:

  • Working inside with limited light
  • Allowing enough time for the family to relax without being there so long that I risked overwhelming them

The positive aspects:

  • Building a relationship
  • Exploring a new (to me) type of way of working



Learning points:

  • Be confident that you can do things
  • Relax and the subjects will also relax
  • Take enough images to allow for problems with the light

With sincere thanks to Janey and Rich.

Reference list:

Arbus, D. et al. (1978) Diane Arbus. London: Gordon Fraser Gallery.

Braden, P. (2016) Great interactions : life with learning disabilities and autism. Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing.

Bradon, P. and Williams, S. (2018) Out of the Shadows. Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing.

Hevey, D. (s.d.) Viewing. At: http://davidhevey.com/viewing/ (Accessed on 6 April 2020)

Mcintyre, L. (2004) The time of her life. London: Jonathan Cape.

Quail, L. (2018) Big brother. Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing.

Siân Davey (2015) Looking for Alice. Great Britain: Trolley Ltd.

Diane Arbus

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].

Self Evidence – Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe

Self Evidence is an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery of Scotland, which is being shown, appropriately, in the Robert Mapplethorpe Gallery.  The three photographers shown were all interested in the idea of identity, or the self, and how to show it.


Diane Arbus (1923-1971)

Arbus is a fascinating photographer who took a collection of images of what she called her ‘singular people’. These were often of people who were different in some way, for instance, the Jewish giant, and the images of people from nudist camps. There are ethical dilemmas in her images, especially when looked at from todays stance. Did she ask permission? Did she explain how she was using the images? Did she pay for them? The answer to all of these is probably no – but nor did any of the photographers of her time. She undoubtedly took images that would be difficult to take today – those of people with a learning difficulty and physical challenges. Nowadays we would need to find out who has the appropriate guardianship and rights of welfare attorney, get formal permission, and credit the people involved. Does that mean the images should not have been taken then, when it was a different world? Does it mean they should not be shown now? What is obvious from the images is that Arbus engaged with the people. For the images of those people in a nudist camp she took the pictures while naked to make them feel comfortable. She talked to the people with learning problems and visited them – something that was rarely done at that time, when ‘mental issues’ were hidden away. She gave them a voice, even if they did nor fully understand what was being said.  Arbus addressed identity by looking at other people rather than herself.

Francesca Woodman (1958-1981)

In Woodman’s short life she took a vast number of images, many which have never been on display. The ones shown in this exhibition are a variety of images mainly of herself or her boyfriend, Ben. They are small, black and white, mostly square. Some have been written across and were used as notes to send to others. Many are partially out of focus. She utilised mirrors, reflections and odd shafts of light to illuminate the important areas. Many of the images show herself partly hidden or on the edge of the frame, such as Untitled (FW crouching behind an umbrella). She becomes a ghostly partial presence. Do the images tell you about Woodman – or hide her? It is difficult to read her images nowadays without considering her suicide at a young age, and wondering what impact this had on her photography – but much of her oeuvre was  taken well before that and it is almost certainly simplistic to assume that all the images were taken by someone who was depressed! Much is experimental, much echoes the type of photography and art she was exposed to.

Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989)

The exhibition of Mapplethorpe self-portraits shows a range of images from those of him in his early bad boy, leather and whips phase to ones with a suited and serious mien to those taken just before his death. They often show him playing a role, holding a knife or a gun, possibly copying stances from films. They become gradually less controversial, although not completely so. There is one from 1985 which shows him wearing horns. Is he playing as a satyr or as a devil? Is it another riff on his earlier images that use themes from the Catholic Church? The final one is of his face and hand holding a stick with a skull. All else is black. A true play on a ‘memento mori’ image, made more poignant because he was clearly aware of his own impending death.  All of the images are beautifully crafted, balanced and set formally within the frame. Whatever you think of his lifestyle and the photographs he chose to take it is impossible to deny that he was a skilled artist, who used his own life to tell a story about a population that was mainly hidden then, and often still is.


It was fascinating to see these three photographers side by side. They all died young, two by suicide, one because of AIDS. They were all interested in portraiture. The photographs they took were very different. Arbus showed her interest in people by taking images of others. Woodman photographed herself, but in an elliptical, sideways way, hiding as much as she showed. Mapplethorpe’s images are clear, in your face and controversial – but does his apparent clarity hide as much as Woodman’s less overt images do?