Diane Arbus (1923-1971)

Exactly 45 years ago today, the celebrated priestess of 1960s black and white photography, Diane Arbus, ‘wrote the world ‘Last Supper’ in her diary. She placed the appointment book on the stairs leading to the bathroom. She swallowed a large dose of barbiturates and,still in her clothes, laid down inside the tub. Then, with great determination- the wounds were deep enough to sever the tendons- she slit her wrists.’ She was found two days later by her boyfriend Marvin Israel.

Diane Arbus in New York

Arbus most definitely belongs to the canon not only of photography but also social documentation and psychological research. Her restless feet and questioning mind sent her around New York approaching communities nobody had ventured into before. She interacted with and photographed the less fortunate, even downright discriminated members of society and achieved considerable recognition for her work with cross-dressers and homosexuals, the sick and deformed, freaks and eccentrics. She spent incredible amounts of time around the outcasts that the rest of the world did not see the reason to start a dialogue with. Her drive to subsume a truthful (truthful, that is, with all its doubts, fibs and fantasies) array of variants of human body, gender and identity into her photographic collection exposes a soul sensitive to many different modalities of existence. As her mentor and friend, photographer Lisette Model, opines: ‘She photographed them humanly, seriously and functioning in their lives’ and showed their participation in the world as fascinating, relevant and equally worthwhile.

I do harbour a certain amount of doubt about building up one’s career on the misfortune and challenges of others, especially when Arbus in the video embedded below admits that she used to be empty and ingratiating to her subjects in order to obtain the picture she wanted. She knew that something was not completely (morally) right and at some point summed up: ‘This photographing is really the business of stealing.’ However, I am also thankful that she produced this unparalleled body of work and that she populated her prints with those usually unfit for any kind of unsentimental and respectful representation. And I concur with her when she states: ‘I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them.’ 

Arbus did not lope around searching for sublime compositions or effects of light or celebrations of life; she was determined to still the viewers with the physical and psychological flaws of others (and ourselves) thanks to (and not despite) which the human community will never stop buzzing like a badly installed electric circuit.


PS- Read this account of Arbus’ life, rich in anecdotes, remembrances and her main career and personal stops:

PS1- Watch Diane’s daughter Doon, Lisette Model, Marvin Israel and others to talk about the troubled but exceptional photographer:

 PS2- Met Breuer, New York is now exhibiting the early works by Arbus and a new, 752-page biography on the artist has just been completed by Arthur Lubow:




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