“I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them.” – Diane Arbus
Diane Arbus was known for photographing the things we don’t always see – or, maybe more precisely, the things we don’t always want to see. Her gritty black-and-white portraits seemed to capture every flaw, the obvious ones and the ones we thought we were cleverly hiding. She gravitated toward the unusual: nudists, eccentrics and “freaks.” But even her simplest portraits of perfectly average people reveal something slightly off-putting, a little bit odd.
Born on March 14, 1923 in New York City, Arbus didn’t grow up with a camera in her hand. A child of wealthy parents, she married her high school sweetheart, Allen Arbus, when she was just 18. In the early days of their marriage, the couple became interested in photography, opening a fashion photography studio a few years later. Allen was the photographer, while Diane handled art direction… and hated it. After 10 years, she quit the business (not long before the marriage began to dissolve) and picked up a camera herself.
As she studied and practiced photography, her uniquely disturbing style soon began to develop. She found inspiration visiting places that made her nervous – gay nightclubs, city tenements, the “Freak Museum” in Times Square – and used her fear as a springboard for adventurous creativity.
From a 21st-century perspective, it can be a little hard to condone Arbus’ frequent use of the word “freaks” to describe her photographic subjects. But 50 years ago, it was a common term for anyone with physical abnormalities, from unusual height or weight to enlarged or extra body parts. And these abnormalities fascinated Arbus, providing a rich source of flawed subject matter.
Russian midget friends in a living room on 100th Street, N.Y.C.
In “Russian midget friends in a living room on 100th Street, N.Y.C.,” Arbus explored physical abnormality. She didn’t do it by casting judgment or aiming for the grotesque, but just by presenting her subjects as they were naturally.
She took a similar approach with “A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y.”
A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y.
The subject – 8’9” Eddie Carmel – is at home, in a place where he can be comfortable. Yet the viewer can’t help feeling a little uncomfortable – maybe in part because of the look of disbelief on his mother’s face. Arbus later reflected on this photo, “You know how every mother has nightmares when she's pregnant that her baby will be born a monster? ... I think I got that in the mother's face....” There’s fear, again.
But Arbus didn’t choose only physical abnormalities as her inspiration, and she didn’t always work from fear. Many of her portraits were of people remarkable mainly for being so regular.
Mrs. T. Charlton Henry in her Chestnut Hill Home, Philadelphia, PA
“Mrs. T. Charlton Henry in her Chestnut Hill Home, Philadelphia, PA” portrayed a woman who was a typical 1965 society lady. By all standards of the day, there was nothing of the “freak” in Mrs. Henry… and yet, the combination of giant hair, repetitive pearls, and layers of heavy brocade comes out the tiniest bit odd just the same.
Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey
Similarly, “Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey” shouldn’t be disturbing – what’s so scary about seven-year-old girls in party dresses? Yet the photo inspired Stanley Kubrick’s vision of his classic horror movie, The Shining, which features ghostly sisters in the same pose. It’s also a key example of the way the subjects of Arbus’ photos often reacted to her work – more often than not, they didn’t like it. “We thought it was the worst likeness of the twins we'd ever seen,” the girls’ father later said.
But not everyone Arbus photographed was unhappy with the results.
Boy With Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park
Arbus remembered the boy simply goofing around and getting impatient: “Take the picture already!” But Colin Wood, subject of “Boy With Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park,” is intrigued as an adult looking back at the photo and sees more in his expression. “My parents had divorced,” he said of the day of the photo shoot. “I was just exploding. She saw that and it's like... commiseration.”
Arbus’ photos were divisive, but love them or hate them, there’s no denying that each one showed us something we wouldn’t have otherwise seen. Before her death on July 26, 1971, Arbus spent her career seeking out the unusual and the odd. In her own words, “My favorite thing is to go where I've never been.”