“A camera should be a little bit cold, a little bit harsh.” The words of Diane Arbus, sixties and seventies American photographer who became widely known for her photographs of marginalised people; dwarves, nudists, transgender people and giants. In short, she photographed “freaks”, and yet at the same time was scared that this would come to define her career.
Arbus was destined to become infamous in one way or another; if not for her challenging portraits of deviants, it would be her violent suicide which would help to cement her legend. Born in 1923, she was married by the time she was eighteen, and, along with her husband, took photographs for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Their fashion photography was only faintly recognised, though, with critics suggesting that it was nothing better than “middling quality.”
Perhaps because of a dislike for commercial photography, or perhaps due to a lack of real aptitude and talent for this particular line of work, Diane Arbus left the industry in 1956 and began to study photography under the tutelage of Lisette Model, an American photographer who made her name taking unsentimental photographs of lonely, insecure people.
It was Model’s style and methods which had the biggest influence on Arbus. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1963 and was to take pictures of “American rites, manners and customs.” During this project, she became close to her subjects and in 1967 exhibited in a show called “New Documents” which sought to showcase the work of a “new generation of documentary photographers.”
Curated by John Szarkowski, the show was meant to “emphasise the pathos and conflicts of modern life presented without editorialising or sentimentalising but with a critical, observant eye.” It is easy to here draw comparisons with the art of Impressionism, which toward the end of the 19th century sought to put the spotlight on the ordinary, underprivileged folk, warts n’ all.
Arbus’ career took off after 1970, and she began to take picture of people who had an intellectual disability. While at first she saw real artistry and humanity in these pictures, Arbus lated confided to Model that she disliked them. Not long later, on July 26th, 1971, Diane Arbus committed suicide.
Her photographs of identical twins, transvestites, giants, and dwarves have sealed her reputation as being one of the best known female photographers of the sixties and seventies. She had a “obsessive, no-holds barred quality,” and her work continues to be exhibited, while in 2006, a film of her life was released.