Photo History: Talking About Diane Arbus

I thought that talking about Diane Arbus would be difficult, for the obvious reason that everyone talks about her. But after having used the Hayward Gallery exhibition to open up the subject a bit in my previous post, I’m finding it less arduous to find something new to say.

When I read from her letters and cards I feel my mind becoming much less burdened. I think I write more fluidly and emotionally, not in the pejorative sense but more like I’m more in touch with my emotional sensibilities. It feels natural to talk about her without the heavy context of history (am not saying that history is unimportant, just that on this occasion it’s freeing to approach from the literary or image-based aspect).

Arbus is a diamond mine of quotable phrases, which makes talking about Diane Arbus, Photographer a little harder. I don’t really want to overuse her because something about reading her all in one go seems like a waste. I want to be reading her words for the first time every time, but I know I can’t do that and that’s quite sad. 

Perception is Everything

Arbus was a disturbance in these people’s lives that forced them outside of themselves. She seems to isolate her subject in a limbo twixt reality and the limbic space created by the camera. There they hover, between worlds, released for one instance from the trauma of their daily lives to exist as they truly are: unburdened. Their tragic existence is captured. The clock stops and in that moment Arbus finds them. These early portraits that were shown in the exhibition were the results of fortuitous encounters, but I can’t help but think that chance has little to do with. 

I’m not a believer in coincidences, much to the disbelief of many who insist that it can’t be anything but. It just doesn’t sit right with me. I believe that things happen that are meant to happen, but that isn’t coincidence. A coincidence is trivial. Like a friend wearing the same branded top as you. But if you meet someone you do know, or don’t, in an unusual place then it was meant to happen like that. You were meant to take that detour, at that time, on that side of the pavement. It happens. You don’t have to believe it. 

There is a lot within Arbus’s writing that I don’t understand but find terribly and almost exhaustingly (intended) sincere. I almost thought I’d found a parallel with Weston’s Daybooks but there’s a difference in tone and feeling. Obviously. I suppose I thought I’d see a similarity in the outpouring of uninhibited thought and to a certain extent I do; reading Weston’s Daybooks, or at least reading as much as I have, which is not very much at all currently, is like a window opened up in the universe and suddenly you’re there, in Mexico, with him and Tina. It’s the way he writes so vividly and yet completely unencumbered by useless description. Every word is where it needs to be. The same with Arbus then.

“You’re always sort of feeling your way.”

Diane Arbus, March 1971 [1]

So, with Arbus, and based on absolutely nothing scientific or couched whatsoever in fact or historical documentation, just a feeling I have, I believe she was in the right place, the place she was meant to be. I’m still talking about the Diane Arbus early years, that is, in 1956, before she made note of her intentions for projects like the Freaks

But if she made notes for projects, she didn’t believe in conceiving of the image prior to capturing it. Weston believed this, previsualising the image. With Arbus one sort of has the impression that her mind was a cacophony of thoughts and ideas all rushing around, bumping into one another. How can you previsualise something that you don’t know exists?

Characters in an Arbus tale

We talk about reading a photograph, but with Arbus everything is illegible. I don’t want to identify the imperfect composition, the way a street kerb just misses lining up with the corner of the frame because it doesn’t feel honest somehow. Although Arbus herself talked about composition in funny terms that I quite admire:

“I hate the idea of composition. I don’t know what good composition is. I mean I guess I must know something about it from doing it a lot and feeling my way into it and into what I like. Sometimes for me composition has to do with a certain brightness or a certain coming to restness and other times it has to do with funny mistakes. There’s a kind of rightness and wrongness and sometimes I like rightness and sometimes I like wrongness. Composition is like that.”

Diane Arbus [2]

When I’m looking at an Arbus portrait, for most of her work concerns humans and our perilous existence just trying to exist, I don’t want to analyse anything. Her work is so deeply felt, portraits of a humanity that sort of doesn’t exist to the wider world, you know; headless women, tattooed men (Jack Dracula), Uncle Sam. These miraculous individuals may only have existed for the sake of Arbus and her camera. Doesn’t it seem like that sometimes? That people you may never have encountered in your small life (for that is what it is, mine own included) suddenly appear before you like real ghostly apparitions and you think to yourself, How is it that they exist and I’ve never seen them, and then, subsequently, How is it that they exist and someone captured them. 

The Impossibility of Tragedy

I was struck by a few images in the exhibition. I can’t really show you them here because copyright so I’ll give you the titles and you can go along to the internet and search it out. Alternatively, I’m going to screenshot something just unrelated enough although probably still illegal in terms of copyrighting but it’s on the internet for all to view so. 

Diane Arbus, Max Maxwell Landar, Uncle Sam, N.Y.C., 1961
Gelatin silver print
An Influential Vision: The Collection of Ruth Ansel
Phillips Photographs Evening & Day Sales
New York 5 & 6 October 2016
Phillips Online

This isn’t the one I want to be able to show you, but it’s still the same man. Uncle Sam Leaning On A Cot At Home, N.Y.C., 1960 shows a tiny man, Uncle Sam, whose real name is Max Maxwell Landar (as above) an 80-year-old man about 4 feet high who “pretends to be Uncle Sam because he thinks people would like to think he is.” [4]

Even in this image he cuts a faintly wretched figure. It’s terribly life-affirming in the sense that you are aware he had a life and existed but probably in quite a dismal way. They make you feel just awkward enough. Not too much to make you look away but so much that you keep looking only because to not look would feel like a betrayal of sorts. And part of me believes that this sentiment is Arbus’s emotional legacy, at least to those who can feel it. Because I think you need to feel in order to see her photographs. 

“What I’m trying to describe is that it’s impossible to get out of your skin into somebody else’s. And that’s what all this is a little about. That somebody else’s tragedy is not the same as your own.”

Diane Arbus [5]

My friend latched on to that last sentence. And it struck a chord with me once she’d spoken the words. Because we can have a tendency to incorporate the tragedies of others in ourselvers but we shouldn’t because they don’t belong to us and we have our own with which to reckon. In a certain way it’s almost tragic in itself because it underlines the very impossibility of photography; if a human cannot get out of his own skin and into someone else’s, what hope for a mechanical contraption operated by said human. 

We’re rushing around in the world, trying to contend with the minute tragedies and the immense tragedies that hit us head on and although it’s mighty painful, we can only really understand these for ourselves, not for others. And sometimes we can’t even understand them for ourselves. I’ve always thought that pain is a necessary stage of any process, particularly the little tragedies. If you push away the pain it’s like eliminating a stage of healing. From the cracks we build up. Except I don’t think Arbus could build up. She, this profound human who could see through the veneers of humanity with which we conceal our true selves. 

And I’d really like to end on this:

“There are always two things that happen. One is recognition and the other is that it’s totally peculiar. But there’s some sense in which I always identify with them.”

Diane Arbus [6]


  • 1. Diane Arbus quoted in Revelations
  • 2. Diane Arbus but I can’t remember where I found the quotation. By academic standards I really shouldn’t have included it but frankly it was too valuable to discard. Apologies…
  • 3. Phillips Photographs Evening & Day Sales, New York 5 & 6 October 2016
  • 4. Revelations, 124, p.31
  • 5. Diane Arbus, and this time it came from the exhibition so while I’m not totally absolved of academic neglect I am shifting some of the responsibility.
  • 6. Diane Arbus, this is getting worryingly close to a pattern… I’ll fill it in when I find it!

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