Diane Arbus

Diane was born on March 14 1923 to Gertrude and David Nemerov, wealthy owners of the Russeks fur store in downtown New York. As a child, this wealth formed a cocoon around her, protecting her from the effects of the great depression and other common ailments.
“I was confirmed in a sense of unreality. All I could feel was my sense of unreality.”
At the age of 14 she met Allan Arbus who she promptly married four years later at 18. Allan acted as Diane’s first teacher as they formed a studio for fashion photography. Allan was the technical side and Diane was the visual stylist. However, after a few years, she became sick of the fashion world and quit to pursue her own artistic goals.
After some soul searching she eventually struck gold when she took a class taught by famed photographer Lisette Model. Model encouraged Arbus to go out and seek the “forbidden” in her subjects, heavily influencing her emotional and visual style. She then met Marvin Israel, her lifelong friend and supporter, who pushed Arbus to pursue her goals even further.
She supported herself financially by taking photos for magazines. When she did eventually get her photos in the Museum of Modern Art, she was terribly saddened to learn the janitor had to come early every morning to wipe the spit from her work. It wasn’t until 1967 with her “New Documents” exhibit that she finally received critical and popular acclaim. She died shortly afterwards in 1971 after taking sleeping pills and slashing her wrists with a razor.
Technology as a whole was not very important or necessary for the photographs of Arbus. What was important was the type of camera she used. Originally using a run of the mill 35mm Leica camera, from which she would blow up and crop the prints to extenuate the grain, in 1962 she switched to a medium format Rolleiflex which gave her a cleaner picture and the un-cropped almost square frame her most famous pictures posses. Later she added a Mamiya C33 and flash to her arsenal which permanently cemented the snap-shot, exposed, almost documentarian look Arbus became famous for. Also, these twin lens reflex cameras allowed Arbus to keep her face exposed to her subjects preventing their bond from being broken, like many photographers, by a camera on her face.
Arbus would frame her subjects face on and direct. She is the documentarian of their hidden would, trying to get them to reveal in image what they cannot to the world. To do this sometimes she would get so close to her subjects so as to reveal the individual pores on their faces. Other times she would step back and deprive us of a close physical look, but let the viewer into the world they inhabit. There were no tricks or mechanical gimmicks to her style, just efficient honest technique.
All of her photos where in black and white, lit with either natural light or a flash and would be taken in one of the subject’s frequented locales. She would refrain from obvious manipulation the misenscene, instead she would use the camera’s position itself to create the image she wanted.
“Sometimes I can see a photograph or a painting, I see it and I think, That's not the way it is. I don't mean a feeling of, I don't like it. I mean the feeling that this is fantastic, but there's something wrong. I guess it's my own sense of what a fact is. Something will come up in me very strongly of No, a terrific No. It's a totally private feeling I get of how different it really is.
“I'm not saying I get it only from pictures I don't like. I also get it from pictures I like a lot. You come outdoors and all you've got is you and all photographs begin to fall away and you think, My God, it's really totally different. I don't mean you can do it precisely like it is, but you can do it more like it is.”
Themes or Motifs
The most obvious theme in Arbus’s work is freakiness.
“Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot. It was one of the first things I photographed and it had a terrific kind of excitement for me. I just used to adore them. I still do adore some of them. I don't quite mean they're my best friends but they made me feel a mixture of shame and awe. There's a quality of legend about freaks. Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. Most people go through life dreading they'll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They've already passed their test in life. They're aristocrats.”
Ironically, Arbus was afraid she would solely become known as the photographer of freaks, which is what she did become. However, regardless of her subject matter, freaks or normies, all her photos had a cerebral uneasiness to them.
She was known as a soft spoken woman who, after spending a few hours listening to her subjects, could get them to pose in very honest and revealing ways.
(Refer to story of Germaine Greer).
However, this openness and outward honesty in her subjects often got her into trouble.
(Refer to Viva scandal in 1967)
Most of Arbus’ photos were taken for magazine periodicals, but these never became known as any of her critically famous work. Her portfolio pictures were taken out of her own desire to create art. “She began her life as a self-described “collector,” viewing her work as “a sort of contemporary anthropology.””

How to Photograph Like Her
To more poignantly answer a question Gerald asked in class, to take an Arbus-like picture I would invite myself over to a sweet old lady’s house, and stay far past my welcome and her bedtime. At the first sign of a perturbed facial twitch I would take my picture and leave. (If you follow this strategy, you will capture excellent moments of character truth. Just make sure your subject is not diabetic as it greatly improves the chances of you getting cake, and makes the awkward stay all the more sightly bearable).