Diane Arbus, Aperture Monogram

Diane Arbus (1923–71) is a photographer whose work deals explicitly with identity. A retrospective of her work was first published in 1972, following her suicide in the previous year and the edition considered here is the 2012, fortieth anniversary publication. At the time the book was first published, John Szarkowski summarised his thoughts on Arbus:

Diane Arbus was not a theorist but an artist. Her concern was not to buttress philosophical positions but to make pictures. She loved photography for the miracles it performs every day by accident, and respected it for the precise intentional tool that it could be, given talent, intelligence, dedication and discipline. Her pictures are concerned with private rather than social realities, with psychological rather than visual coherence, with the prototypical and mythic rather than the topical and temporal. Her real subject is no less than the unique interior lives of those she photographed. (back cover material, Arbus D, 2012)


Source: www.americansuburbx.com

The introduction to the book includes a slightly rambling monologue by Arbus, setting out her views on photography. In the context of understanding her approach to portraiture, the following points are important:

  • Arbus’s subjects have a confident gaze before the camera. She comments, ‘actually they tend to like me. I’m extremely likeable with them. I think I’m kind of two-faced.’  It sounds like Arbus attempts to instil confidence in her subjects by acting benignly towards them.
  • Arbus talks about the need for a photograph to be ‘specific’. She seems to mean the unusual, rather than the generic, the things that have been seen before. She comments how she was drawn to photograph the freaks and nudists. Indeed, the book is full of unusual people, not conforming to what is general presented as the norm.
  • She expresses a dislike of texture, saying, ‘… I really hate that, the idea that a picture can be interesting simply because it it shows a texture … it bores the hell out of me.’ Her interest is rather to see the ‘densities of different kinds of things.’ This preference is reflected in her work, which tends have soft contrasts, there are no craggy sharp lined faces in her portraits. Nothing like Don McCullin’s homeless Irishman here.
  • An aspect of photography that Arbus comments she tired of is strobe lighting, saying, ‘… lately I’ve been struck with how I really love what you can’t see in a photograph. An actual physical darkness. And it’s thrilling for me to see darkness again.’ Of course, this limitation does not follow for modern strobe lights, which are finely controllable. However, Arbus would perhaps not appreciate the use of digital processing techniques used to open up shadow information and show detail throughout images.
  • Arbus comments that she dislikes the idea of composition, meaning rules of composition. She comments that, ‘there’s a kind of rightness and wrongness and sometimes I like the rightness and sometimes I like the wrongness. Composition is like that.’ This approach is evident in her photos, with elements sometimes placed awkwardly and effectively in the frame (child with a toy hand grenade, for example).
  • In concluding, Arbus comments on intention, with the pity phrase, ‘I never have taken a picture I’ve intended. They’re always better or worse.’.


ASX [website]. Notes from the Margin of Spoiled Identity – The Art of Diane Arbus (1988). Available from:  http://www.americansuburbx.com/2012/07/diane-arbus-notes-from-margin-of.html [accessed 10.7.16]

Arbus, D. and Israel, M. eds. 2012. Diane Arbus: An aperture monograph: Fortieth-Anniversary edition. United States: Aperture.

FItzgibbon A (2015). C&N Blog [website]. Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs – Diane Arbus. Available from: http://context.fitzgibbonphotography.com/singular-images-essays-remarkable-photographs-diane-arbus/ [accessed 10.7.16]

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