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The Lens of Diane Arbus

In the most fundamental sense I’m not photographing giants and midgets and the deformed and tattooed and transvestites and the normal my lens makes disturbed; I’m examining what I know myself to be: a misfit who’s always hated that my parents are wealthy. I’m humiliated having nannies. I cringe at the deference of strangers. I’m embarrassed by lavish foreign vacations. I detest all my privileges. As an adult, I brood because I’m my husband’s commercial photography assistant and not really a photographer. I have to escape. We separate in 1959 after eighteen years marriage. I’m thirty-six and have been taking some photography classes. I get commercial assignments but they depress me. I need subjects who compel me to proclaim: “I don’t press the shutter. The image does.”

On my own, with two daughters and without a trust fund, I discover my artistic self in photographs starting in the early 1960’s. Tattooed Jack Dracula has raccoon eyes and wings on his forehead and chest and images all over. The Backwards Man in his Hotel Room features a head and torso facing one way and feet and legs pointing the other. The Man from World War Zero and his Wife bears three eyes and two noses his wife forgives. In 1962 The Child with a Toy Hand Grenade appears a lunatic ready to attack Central Park. All other photos that day make the child look normal. Those photos are forgotten.

Through my lens A Castle at Disneyland suggests the residence of Dracula. The Human Pincushion bears long pins through an eyebrow, his cheeks, lips, neck, chest, and arms. Retired Man and his Wife at Home in a Nudist Camp one Morning make you wish they were wearing clothes. Pretty young Triplets in their Bedroom look like they’re waiting to be embalmed. A Teenage Couple on Hudson Street are objectively cute but in my frame somehow strange. Russian Midget Friends in a Living Room on 100th Street evoke Iron Curtain horrors as well as genetic disaster. Jane with Son Ned shows a mother with a head twice the size of her adult son’s. The attractiveness of a Puerto Rican Woman with a Beauty Mark is overridden by her demonic gaze.

Some critics accuse me of degrading my subjects, making them “victims of my mocking lens.” I disagree. My work is art, not satire. My art either illuminates what is there or could be there, lurking. My celebrated 1967 Identical Twins prompts their father decades later to tell The Washington Post: “We’ve always been baffled that she made them look ghostly. None of the other pictures we have of them looks anything like this.”

How could they? I’m photographing a mind that is “literally scared of getting depressed. And it is so goddamn chemical, I’m convinced. Energy, some kind of special energy, just leaks out and I am left lacking the confidence to even cross the street.”

When pain doesn’t immobilize me I pick up my camera. In 1967 my Patriotic Young Man with a Flag resembles a halfwit. It’s a matter of photographic selection: throw out the normal and showcase the bizarre. You can do it, too. You can find a Seated Man in a Bra and Stocking and high heels. You can capture a Naked Man being a Woman. You can locate a Masked Man at a Ball who may be the Phantom of the Opera. You can transform A Family on their Lawn one Sunday in Westchester into a scene from the Twilight Zone. You can immortalize an Elderly Couple before they die. You can shoot A Dominatrix embracing her Client. You can study A Jewish Giant at Home with his Parents in the Bronx and lament that the young man’s head, even atop a curved and crippled spine, almost touches the ceiling far above his tiny parents. You can record smiling retarded people in Untitled photos from 1971. And, if necessary, you can swallow a handful of pills and slash your wrists.

To view many photos of Diane Arbus, please click here

This entry was posted in Art, Depression, Diane Arbus, Mental Health, Photography, Suicide.