Diane Arbus, an American photographer, writer and teacher, produced riveting photographic work that captivated the artistic world with dreamlike imagery and fantastical subject matter. While at times labeled eerie or bizarre, one cannot begrudge the propensity of her work or the vivacity with which it was accomplished, as Arbus herself often pushed the limits to portray her vision. Visiting slums, decaying hotels and bars, Arbus exposed the underbelly of New York and brought an infusion of life to the artistic world.
Focusing much of her photographic work of the 50's, 60's and 70's on those spurned by society or viewed as aberrations and curiosities, Arbus brought forth the bliss, trepidation and woe of the human condition, not only in her subjects but in those who viewed her work. She famously said, "A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know." This singular statement offers a glimpse into the innermost workings of her mind and the message she speculatively tried to convey through her work. Her lesson to the world and other artists was one of relative truth - that nothing is what it appears to be and though beauty can be veiled, mysterious or seemingly lacking, it is ever present in every living thing. It is this human condition and understanding that every photographer must find to create the undefinable essence that is art.
By photographing the downtrodden, the lonely, the "freakish" and the strange, her photography takes on a surreal quality, almost Tress-like in many ways. Arbus touched on the imagination, bringing fantasy to life, although for her subjects - the fantasy was life. As was her nature, she often grew close to the subjects of her work and followed their lives for years at a time, speaking to the depth of her passion. This quality and intensity is as poignant today as it was during her relatively short lifetime, leaving all who view her work with a lasting impression of inexplicable depth. During her lifetime, Arbus was not always viewed as a visionary, with some of her earlier work being described as "middling quality." True to form, Arbus was not deterred and in 1967 her work was shown at the Museum of Modern Art.
Today, when so much photographic art seems to offer little more than a cookie-cutter quality and a spurious nature, many artists are left looking to the past for inspiration, finding the work of Arbus and others waiting in the shadows to be discovered and analyzed. The drive to create, along with the insatiable search for artistic mastery and truth lies within each individual, who must ask himself whether safety and accepted forms of beauty are somehow more valuable than the portrayal of the tender, wounded or defiant. Diane Arbus had the courage not only to ask herself this question, but to act upon her convictions.
Although some photographs have the power to disturb, provoke or horrify, isn't this the very quality that breathes life into one's work? The thing that drives an artist from within? The obscure necessity to breathe life and truth into what lies beneath the superficial? Every person has the capability to show others the world through new eyes. Arbus put it best when she said, "I really believe there are things others would not see if I did not photograph them." This could be viewed as fanatical or grandiose by some, but in reality it is a simple and profound truth spoken by one who saw the world in contrasting entirety.
From The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley's words ring true in regard to the life and work of Arbus, " We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves. The martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone....The mind is its own place, and the Places inhabited by the insane and the exceptionally gifted are so different from the places where ordinary men and women live, that there is little or no common ground of memory to serve as a basis for understanding or fellow feeling."
Through her portrayal of others, Arbus ultimately bared her own soul, as each photographer does, often unknowingly. She displayed the courage that few dare to, sharing herself and her vision with the world in a ferocious clash against all that was acceptable, flaunting the misunderstood in unkempt ragged beauty. For this, she reaped infamy, although her own life was fraught with pain and depressive episodes, ultimately resulting in death by her own hand. Perhaps Arbus was one of the exceptionably gifted individuals that Huxley refers to, living in a torturous limbo, caught between craving life and loathing it - unable to find common ground or fellow feeling with the masses that swirled around her daily. In spite of her personal tragedy, Arbus branded herself and her vision on the world, manifested in unembellished transparency for all to see, speaking for her fearlessness and perhaps her need to connect.
What lessons can fellow photographers garner from the life and works of Diane Arbus? If it must be singular, the lesson is perhaps one of courage and truth; daring to do what others dare not, listening to the call of one's passions and seeking understanding of the self through others. While her photographs awaken differing levels of emotion in those who view them and provoke debate still today, the work of Diane Arbus speaks to the heart of all that is good, wretched and indomitable in man.