My favourite thing is to go where I’ve never been’ wrote the photographer Diane Arbus, the poor little rich Jewish girl who walked on the wild side. Though the journeys she took were not just physical adventures along the boardwalks of Coney Island or to gender-bending night clubs but those in which she explored the rocky terrain of self-definition. From the start of her career she saw the street as a place full of secrets and reflected her subjects – whether children, the rich or poor, it didn’t matter – as isolated and adrift, remote from society and the world around them, caught up in their own reveries and physical space. Her caste of characters appear like metaphors for themselves; each striving to make him or herself the starring role in their own private psychodrama.
Arbus was one of the first to give equal weight and value to all her subjects
Born Diane Nemerov to a Jewish couple who lived in New York City and owned Russek’s, a famous Fifth Avenue department store, she was insulated during the 1930s Depression by their wealth. Raised by maids and governesses, with a mother who suffered from depression, while her father was mostly absent with work, her early years coloured her emotional landscape. At the age of 18, in 1941, she received her first camera from her husband, Allan Arbus, and started making photographs, which she continued to do sporadically for well over a decade. During the early years the couple were engaged in a moderately successful career in fashion photography—she as the art director/stylist, he as the photographer/technician—using the credit line “Diane & Allan Arbus.” In 1956, she left the business partnership and committed herself full-time to her own work.
When she first took to the streets her photographic landscapes, which included Time Square, Coney Island and the street fairs of Little Italy, were similar to those of her predecessors and contemporaries such as Paul Strand and Lee Friedlander. But her photographs, snatched through doorways and shop windows, display a dispassionate voyeurism, rendering her something of an urban anthropologist who objectively observed the strange customs and happenings that she stumbled upon. Through her eyes, the mundane became edgy, whether she was photographing an ample naked woman in a white bathing hat showering on the beach at Coney Island or, what looks like, one of Sweeny Todd’s potential victims through an ordinary barbershop window in 1957 New York. It’s as though she was on a permanent lookout for the odd and the transgressive. As she wrote to a friend in 1960, “I don’t press the shutter. The image does. And it’s like being gently clobbered.”
For much of her working life she kept notebooks in which she recorded ideas and incidents gleaned from books and newspapers, tabloids and the telephone directory, incidentals that caught her imagination and could be used as potential subjects: morgue; freak at home; jewel box revue; roller derby women; dressing rm; women’s prison; weird women; paddy wagon; meat slaughterhouse; tattoo parlor; taxi dance hall-before hrs; lonelyhearts club; Happiness Exch.; lady wrestling; beggars-blind; place-waterfr. hotel; ladies room-coney-subway; daughters of Jacob dying. crime; despair; sin; madness; death; fame; wealth; innocence.
Alongside these jottings were extracted from a wide range of ancient and modern sources: Plato, Zen literature, Bram Stoker, Jean Cocteau (on Pablo Picasso), Fyodor Dostoyevsky, as well as Allen Ginsberg.
Her early chance encounters, which resulted in photographs such as Woman in a mink stole and bow shoes, N.Y.C 1960, and the image of a hirsute man in pork pie hat, boxer shorts and black shoes and socks standing on the beach in Coney Island, gave way to photographs such as Jack Dracula at a bar, New London Conn, 1961 in which the heavily tattooed young man sits in front of his glass of beer staring confidently at the viewer. From the ghoulish curiosity shown in a pair of Siamese twins preserved in a glass jar in a New Jersey carnival tent, Arbus’s role as a curious observer changed to one of privileged insider. She claimed: “I have learned to get past the door from the outside to the inside. One milieu leads to another.” There’s the sense that in The Human Pincushion, Ronald C. Harrion N.J. 1961 – where a middle-aged white man stands pierced with hatpins like some downtown secular Saint Sebastian – or the moustachioed Mexican dwarf striped to the waist beneath his little trilby in his N.Y.C hotel, are complicit in the making of the image. That Arbus’s half of the bargain was to make them visible and feel singled out from the crowd. There’s a strong sense running through all these images – particularly those of the many ‘female impersonators’ – that self-worth comes from being seen and recorded – even if harshly. But it often feels, despite her unerring eye, as though there is not much compassion in these photos. As she said: Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot…There’s a quality of legend about freaks….. You see someone on the street and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw’.
Today we’re used to public debates around gender, difference, race and sexual identity, used to the play between surface and depth, artifice and reality but Arbus was one of the first to give equal weight and value to all her subjects whether transsexuals, elderly matrons dressed in white furs, twins or Jewish giants. As early as the age of 16 she wrote that she had glimpsed ‘the divineness in ordinary things’. But, in truth, it is not ‘divineness’ that comes across but a transgressive solidarity with those that she saw as marginalised and reflected something of her own damaged psyche.
And her legacy? Arbus took us through keyholes to show the soft, vulnerable underbelly of other lives. She exposes the abject and the strange, the dull and the sad and, in so doing, finds fleeting moments of something akin to beauty.