Arbus and ‘The Freak Show’

10th October 2013

Diane Arbus, daughter of rich Fifth Avenue department store owners, child of parents in a very difficult relationship, resident in a home where no-one spoke the truth about the family dynamic, married to a man whom she eclipsed as a photographer, champion of the marginal: dwarves, drag queens, circus performers and freaks.

Born and brought up during the great depression, Arbus was sheltered from the reality of everyday life of the vast majority of working Americans but had to endure a family life that was probably more emotionally difficult than the vast majority endured.  Her mother was marginally insane and her father was a workaholic and she and her two siblings, who went on to be noted artists in their own right, never discussed, or understood, the true sense of their family parental problems.  At school she was apparently a gifted artist, but the more she was praised for this, the less she accepted it as meritorious and in the end gave it up. She met her future husband, Allan Arbus, when he was an employee of the family store but the relationship was much frowned upon, particularly by her father, and when she married she was essentially cut-off from the family wealth.

To support themselves, after their marriage and WWII, Diane and Allan started a photographic practice shooting fashion images, their chief customer being the family store through Diane’s father, and although the images were good enough to appear in ‘Vogue’  and ‘Harper’s Bazaar’  their work wasn’t considered to be outstanding.  By 1956, Diane decided to leave the fashion business, which both she and her husband hated, and went to study with her greatest mentor Lisette Model which gave her the inspiration to form her, now, well-known style.  By 1959 Diane and Allan were having difficulties with their marriage and separated, although they didn’t divorce until 10 years later.  Diane went on with her photographic career and Allan went to California and became a well thought of actor.

Diane now started to work on assignment for ‘Esquire’, ‘Harper’s Bazaar’  and  ‘The Sunday Times Magazine’.  Her work began to show a distinctive style, which was considered to be somewhat dark, and she also developed her long-term trait of following her subjects around for hours and sometimes days on end, always quietly and in the background, but there when she saw the image she wanted to capture, normally at times when the subject was off-guard and wouldn’t normally express themselves to a camera in such a way as Arbus caught them, ‘freakishly’ as one pundit wrote.

During the 1960’s, Arbus supplemented, or more likely lived off, her income by teaching photography whilst maintaining her artistic practice for which she received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1963 and ’66.  She also did some work for John Szarkowski as a researcher when he took over as director at MoMA.  It was during the 1960’s that she made the decision to base her work around an area of society that was known to exist, but which most common people ignored, probably as embarrassing, certainly something not discussed in polite society, that of dwarves, freaks, what were then described as sexual deviants, circus artistes and the like.

Arbus herself said that she made images of these people because they interested her and she liked them and no-one else was photographing them artistically.  They probably let her make the images of them because she spent a great deal of time in their company and they came to trust her and shared her ideals of making them appear normal in their everyday life, not just people who provided entertainment and then to be forgotten, who had no other purpose and no other life.  Her work attracted much criticism and approbation in equal measure, and the public came to appreciate her work because it fitted the mood of the sixties in America, an angst filled nation trying to come to terms with their new role in the world and changing social dynamics.  Susan Sontag was Arbus’s greatest critic and devoted a whole essay to her work, ‘America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly’  in her series of essays which became the book ‘On Photography’, although Sontag had allowed her to photograph her family prior to writing about her!

Daniel Oppenheimer wrote, ‘Arbus, perhaps more than any other photographer before and after, forces us to question the morality of photography.  What is it that we’re doing when we take a picture, and what gives us the right?’  I certainly don’t agree that her work makes me think of the morality of photography any more than any other artist, in fact I don’t normally think about the morality issues at all before, during or after making images, unless I’m confronted with a situation that makes me do so.  Why would her work do that more than anyone else’s, unless of course you have the opinion that her work was marginally, or completely immoral?  Then of course it might prick your conscience that images of an unusual minority were made to bring to everyone’s attention the fact that they considered themselves worthy of being considered normal too when you may well have always thought them sub-normal.  As to what is it we’re doing when we make an image and what gives us the right?  I’d say that provided you do have a conscience, and your photographs are compelling enough, you have a moral obligation to make those who, somehow, consider themselves  superior or not concerned with the tragedy of others take notice, make them squirm, make them do something, make them appreciate the feelings of those less fortunate, shove it in their face.

Clearly whatever Arbus herself thought about her work, and what she thought about her life in general, became too much for her, and two years after her divorce she committed suicide in her apartment, alone and not found for two days, in my opinion a very sensitive, caring and socially responsible photographer was lost before her work was totally complete.


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