Diane Arbus: A Privileged Voyeur of Life on the Margins

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It’s been 42 years since the troubled US photographer took her own life, but her images continue to reveal the camera’s predatory nature. Watch a documentary made in 1972 that examines her photography and her methods.

photography, realism, 1964 Diane Arbus

There are legitimate questions about whether her portraiture humanizes or exploits her subjects. Photo By Diane Arbus, Lady Bartender at Home with Souvenir Dog, 1964.

Photographer Diane Arbus, known for black-and-white square photographs of marginal people (Circus and sideshow “freaks”), remains controversial because she transgressed the traditional boundaries of portraiture. Her works make one question her motives for looking with prurient voyeurism at what the critic Susan Sontag called “people who are pathetic, pitiable, as well as repulsive.” In perhaps the most angry essay in her book On Photography, Sontag insists that Arbus’s gaze is “based on distance, on privilege, on a feeling that what the viewer is asked to look at is really other.”

Born Diane Nemerov (1923) to wealthy parents in New York City, Arbus once confided to Studs Terkel: “I grew up feeling immune and exempt from circumstance. One of the things I suffered from was that I never felt adversity. I was confirmed in a sense of unreality.” Sometimes her subjects seem unreal because their warts-and-all ordinariness contrasts with the glossy denizens of slick, full-color magazines–those who can seem more real to us than we do to ourselves. She may have been driven to the margins because of her hatred for the fashion photography she and her husband, Allan Arbus, did for Vogue, Seventeen, and Glamour.

Masters of Photography- Diane Arbus. Produced in 1972, one year after Arbus’s death, the film is built on interviews with the people who knew her best: her daughter Doon, her teacher at the New School, Lisette Model, colleague Marvin Israel, and the director of photography at the time for the Museum of Modern Art, John Szarkowski. That same year, Arbus became the first American photographer to be featured, posthumously, at the Venice Biennale.

Arbus had a unique ability to coax powerful portraits from her subjects, most of whom stare directly at her camera, and the viewer, and do not shrink from confrontation. Her depictions of suburban ennui and shriveled post-celebrity in her commercial work have become archetypal. Her non-commercial depictions, for which she was awarded Guggenheim fellowships in 1963 and 1966, oriented toward the unfamous — a couple on a park bench, a young Republican, identical twin girls — as well as the dwarves and drag queens.

As with most artists who commit suicide, a “cult of Arbus” has helped defend her from critical scrutiny, but there are legitimate questions about whether her portraiture humanizes or exploits her subjects. Yet Arbus was not naïve: she describes herself in an audio interview above as “kind of two-faced, very ingratiating,” and “a little too nice” to her subjects while she captures their flaws.

Sources:

“Diane Arbus: humanist or voyeur?” Sean O’Hagan in the Guardian

1972 Diane Arbus Documentary Interviews Those Who Knew the American Photographer Best,” Josh Jones in Open Culture.

“Diane Arbus” John A. Benigno in Masters of Photography.

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WilderUtopia.com regularly posts articles, photo essays, features, and documentaries from around the web that illuminate the challenges to coexistence between city and wild, developed and developing, human and other.