Research point: Diane Arbus

My introduction to Arbus was my first reading of Clarke (1997), and I was bemused at how much he was able to read into a couple of her images (1997: 28-30). Over time though, learning more about how to read photographs, and the wider context of her work, I began to understand her enduring mystique. Later in the book Clarke uses the memorable phrase: “Collectively, her photographs suggest an overwhelming sense of angst and loneliness.” (1997: 121).

Seeking the flaws

Arbus first achieved recognition photographing what she called ‘freaks’, people on the edges of society for reasons of deformity, sexual proclivity, eccentricity or some other Otherness. They were victims, first of life and then of Arbus’ camera. By her own admission she was drawn to her subjects not so much for their physical appearance but for what she believed must have been going on inside their heads.

A popular quotation of hers (reproduced in Liz Jobey’s Arbus essay in the Sophie Howarth book Essays on Remarkable Photographs (2005) is: “I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them.” (2005: 70) – and she didn’t mean physical details. She was looking for what John Szarkowski called “the unique interior lives of those she photographed” (Howarth 2005: 72).

Where I believe Arbus started taking her world-view away from a humanist interest and into a voyeuristic plane was when she turned her camera away from obvious ‘freaks’ and towards more (nominally) ‘normal’ members of society. Even with people lacking obvious trauma she gravitated towards what she found ‘wrong’ with them: “You see someone on the street, and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw.” (Sontag 1977: 32).

Jobey’s chapter in Essays on Remarkable Photographs is an examination of the 1966 Arbus image A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, NYC. The photograph is a typical Arbus portrait in many respects. An air of melancholy hangs over the family; the son is mentally disabled; the mother looks disappointed with life; the father looks vulnerable, downtrodden; only the babe-in-arms isn’t judged by Arbus’ lens. She subverts the cliché of the happy family portrait by depicting them looking anything but.

A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, NYC, 1966 – Diane Arbus
A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, NYC, 1966 – Diane Arbus

Jobey quotes Arbus in a phrase that summarises a theme in her work: “[…] there’s a point between what you want people to know about you and what you can’t help people knowing about you” (Howarth 2005: 72) – and this is what she exploits. She captures the heartbreaking sadness of a family trying to put on a brave face to the world, and failing.

The image included in the course notes, A child playing with toy hand grenades, is perhaps the best (worst) example of Arbus’ anti-humanist world-view and approach. With carnival ‘freaks’ the ‘flaw’ is self-evident; with her portraits of so-called ‘normal people’ she sought and magnified their flaws; but here was a regular young boy playing, in a single frame pulling a creepy face and looking sinister. This isn’t a ‘flaw’ or something that the boy is trying hide from the world; there is no ‘unique interior life’ being revealed here, it’s a momentary expression. Arbus misleadingly represents the boy as a ‘freak’, which may have fitted in with her view of the world, but I think in this instance crossed a line.

A child playing with toy hand grenades – contact sheet – Diane Arbus
A child playing with toy hand grenades – contact sheet – Diane Arbus

The course notes ask: Why might Arbus have selected this particular image?

I think this question is broadly answered above in the discussion of Arbus’ flaw-seeking approach to life. A deeper question is: Why this negative world-view in the first place?

Sontag posits the theory that it was a rebellion against her affluent, comfortable upbringing: “Arbus’ interest in freaks expresses a desire to violate her own innocence, to undermine her sense of being privileged, to vent her frustration at being safe.” (Sontag 1977: 43).

A variant explanation is underpinned by the idiom (usually credited to Minor White) “All photographs are self-portraits“. Maybe Arbus saw herself as a ‘freak’ and was compelled to capture that in others, either as self-validation or self-loathing. As with Francesca Woodman, her suicide simultaneously adds credence to the authenticity of her despair, and robs us of any definitive explanation.


The research point concludes with asking us to discuss the Daniel Oppenheimer quote:

“Arbus, perhaps more than any other photographer before and after, forces us to question the morality of photography. What is it that we’re doing when we take a picture, and what gives us the right?”

I do agree with this statement. It comes back to the ‘gap between how people think they look and how they actually look’. It’s the closest I think photography gets to the primitive myth of the camera taking your soul; it doesn’t take your soul, but it can allow people to see inside it.

When you consent to someone taking your photograph, your assumption (hope) is that they will make you look good; in a lot of cases you might be disappointed if you look less attractive than you imagine yourself to be; it takes a photographer such as Arbus to specifically seek to make you look bad.

To take Oppenheimer’s two questions and answer them from Arbus’ imagined point of view:

  • What is it that we’re doing when we take a picture?
    • Holding up people’s flaws for public scrutiny
  • What gives us the right?
    • Nothing; maybe we just took it and didn’t have the right

A way of seeing the world

One of the enlightening realisations over the course of my studies is that admiring the work of a particular photographer transcends finding their individual images pleasing, it becomes admiring the way they see the world – literally. You appreciate what aspects of life moving in front of them they chose to freeze in a rectangle for future perusal.

This notion extends beyond those artists whose work you like, as you can have a reaction against a photographer precisely because you don’t like the way they see the world. This is my take on Arbus. I can appreciate and intellectually admire her world-view and how successfully she projected it into her work, but that doesn’t make me like the pictures or that world-view.

I’m glad that these images exist; I’m glad someone took them; I’m glad someone took the then-transgressive step of helping to move photography beyond notions of beauty and into something more profound – but I have no empathy with her world-view, no intention to replicate her style or approach, no enjoyment in looking at her pictures outside of the context of study.


Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Howarth, S. (ed.) (2005) Singular Images: Essays on remarkable photographs. London: Aperture.

Sontag, S. (1977) On Photography. London: Penguin. (accessed 16/01/16)


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