Diane Arbus: A Lifelong Confession

Print-scan--16-001The course notes make the point that Diane Arbus’ work was informed by August Sander and that she described her practice as “gathering a butterfly collection”; a combination of Sanders and entomology (i) suggests that we should contextualise her work as typology. However, there are two obvious differences between these two practitioners; Sander set out to create a document of a whole society, a cross section, a classified directory to the Germany of his time whereas Arbus collected subjects within predefined groups under a broader but still narrow heading of people living on the margins of society. In typology the collector is studying the similarities and differences within his presentation of butterflies pinned to a board, industrial edifices or German bourgeoisie. Arbus is not making comparisons across her groups, she does not present sets of dwarfs or twins or transvestites or explore the differences between prostitutes and nudists.

The second difference is more fundamental, Max Kozloff (1) points out that Sander never imposed himself between the subject and his camera whereas William Todd Schultz (2) suggests Arbus was on an endless quest to photograph herself, or as  puts it, “Her adult photography is a long, unlovely confession”, she sought out subjects that enabled her to explore her history and psyche, often playing out her fantasies. Another artist whom Kozloff states “conspicuously interjected himself between the camera and the subject”, Richard Avedon, said “My portraits are more about me than they are about the people I photograph”, arguably stating a self evident truth about photography in general but not necessarily a common trait amongst portraitists. Gerry Badger (5) quotes A.D.Coleman who puts the same argument in different terms “the photograph made with conscious intent is inevitably a remaking of an event into the photographer’s own image.” These two ideas perfectly describe Arbus’ pictures which typically tell us a little about her subjects and far more about her.

In and shortly after her own time the two questions that were most often asked about Arbus were why did she choose to photograph, what she called “freaks” (ii) and Susan Sontag calls “assorted monsters and borderline cases” (4)? And how did she get her subjects to pose for her, often in compromising and unfaltering ways?

In the context of the debate around exploitative photography (iii) Badger suggests, her pictures demand that we make “an almost instantaneous moral judgement” (5) and it fair to say that delivering moral judgement on Arbus’ work has become a sub-genre of photographic writing; there is nothing new that I can usefully add to that debate. I am more interested in the original questions of why those subjects, which I will discuss here and how did she get them to pose which I might discuss another day.

Subject Selection

Schultz’s psychobiography of Arbus (2) is written from the perspective of a psychology professor and as such investigates Arbus’ mental state at various times in her life. This makes the book rather more interesting that Patricia Bosworth’s more traditional biography, a book that I suspect Bill Jay (7) was referring to when he said he had just finished reading a biography of Arbus that was “all very useful but lifeless”. Schultz veers in the opposite direction; his book is full of insights that potentially shine a light into Arbus’ mind but is less useful and not intended to offer a factual description of her life and work.

However, there is one small section of his book that caught my imagination; he looks at specific photographs and analyses them in the context of Arbus’ psyche coming to the conclusion that the subjects directly reference periods in her life and as such are self portraits. I will use three of his examples and then, using his ideas, expand the search to some other pictures.

A Flower Girl at a Wedding Conn. 1964 - Diane Arbus

A Flower Girl at a Wedding Conn. 1964 – Diane Arbus

Schultz’ first example is the Flower Girl. It shows a young girl at a wedding celebration but she has been detached from the wedding party and photographed against the somber, even threatening, backdrop of a deserted landscape partially shrouded in mist. Schultz proposes that the girl represents the young Arbus (or Nemerov as she would have been at a similar age), she is pretty, dressed in expensive clothes, her clothes and her role at the wedding signify a privileged background and she is part of a family celebration.

However this white, angel-like figure is all alone in a bleak, dark landscape creating an obvious metaphor for Arbus’ lonely, little-rich-kid upbringing where she saw herself as an isolated bright spot in a dark and depressing world.

Penelope Tree in the Living Room 1962 - Diane Arbus

Penelope Tree in the Living Room 1962 – Diane Arbus

The second portrait is of Penelope Tree, who would go on to become a successful model. Even more than with the Flower Girl the setting denotes wealth and privilege. Tree stands in front of a plushly furnished room in the smart, designed and tailored clothes that typify her class. Arbus rarely concerns herself with backgrounds so when they are included and photographed with a small aperture we know they are important to her. Here we see the glass chandelier, a huge room with multiple seating areas, plush carpeting, carefully arranged flowers and the gilded mirror; all very Downton. The girl is angry, irritated, bored, her arms crossed defensively, her piercing eyes not making eye contact with the photographer. It is the same metaphor as the Flower Girl, the lonely but now angry little-rich-girl. Tree describes the photograph as “Spoilt rich kid looking absolutely desperate in her native habitat.” (9)

A Family on Their Lawn One Sunday in Westchester, NY 1968 - Diane Arbus

A Family on Their Lawn One Sunday in Westchester, NY 1968 – Diane Arbus

The third of Schultz’ selection is quite different. It features a family sunbathing on their lawn. Family groups are a common theme in her work; not represented as a place of comfortable togetherness but as a strange collective full of complex relationships and secrets that made Arbus question how they functioned. She said of this trio “They are a fascinating family. I think all families are creepy in a way.” (2) This might speak more about her own family life than any subsequent observations.

This picture contains two signifiers of wealth; the title – Westchester is the place to have your near-to-the-city weekend house and the lawn is the size of a football pitch secluded from the outside world by a line of trees.

The wife is attractive in a bleached Monroe way, coiffeured, pampered, flat stomached, false eyebrowed and carefully made-up, squeezed into a skimpy bikini. Arbus would probably and seen her as presenting herself as sexy. She appears to be the only willing participant in the scene but her eyes are closed. The couple are separated by a garden table, she has no possessions on the table, she is there for the shoot but he has a glass, clock, ashtray and cigarettes which are all arranged on his half of the table suggesting that he has been there some time, perhaps waiting for her to apply her makeup and adjust her hair. His expression is tight lipped, he covers his eyes with his hand and, for some reason appears to have a small towel covering his shorts. His body language suggests that he would rather be elsewhere, he doesn’t want to be in the photograph, he has been coerced, he wants the session to end, is he even timing it with his clock or has he an important call to a make and has set an alarm? The child is many yards behind his parents, separated by an empty lawn, he stares into his paddling pool, Schultz even suggests it is a narcissus moment.

The whole scene can be read as a metaphor for Arbus’s childhood, the beautiful mother with her eyes closed ignoring her child. The successful but detached husband who wants to be somewhere else also with his eyes adverted or closed and the lonely child separated from and ignored by his parents. Everyone has their eyes closed except the child who seeks solice in his pool or maybe in his reflection.

Graham Clarke (10) sees the proportions of the  lawn and the trees as connotative elements of this scene.  For Clarke the lawn signifies “emptiness, sterility and dislocation” whilst the trees “have a looming presence”. If we read the picture in these terms the setting itself represents Arbus mindset and the trees are not just looming but represent the barrier between her and the outside. The child, who we now read as Arbus is not only isolated from its parents but the whole family group exists in a sterile vacuum divorced from the world and reality. She had been a privileged child and resented the fact; “I grew up feeling immune and exempt from circumstance. one of the things I suffered from was that I never felt adversity. I was confirmed in a sense of unreality” (11). Her choice of words are revealing; she “suffered” from never experiencing adversity. In this light the child by the swimming pool is the victim of his father’s success, “exempt from circumstance”.

Triplets in Their Bedroom, N.J. 1963 - Diane Arbus

Triplets in Their Bedroom, N.J. 1963 – Diane Arbus

Once on this track it is easy enough to keep finding images that offer metaphors for Arbus’ childhood. Sometimes she even provides the clues as in Triplets. Arbus said “Triplets remind me of myself when I was an adolescent. Lined up in three images: daughter, sister, bad girl, with secret lusting fantasies, each with a tiny difference.” The three identical girls in their bedroom are surprisingly different. Three contrasting expressions that express the three characters of the young Diane.

The combination of her quote, the subject and setting represent three repetitive themes in her work. Arbus often talks about secrets “A photograph is a secret about a secret. the more it tells you the less you know” (6); as a lonely child she had many secrets and no one to share them with; she loved bedrooms and beds as settings, perhaps they  represent the place where secrets are most often found, where she had her own “lusting fantasies” as a girl and where she played out those fantasies in adult life (v); and triplets and twins or even people that dressed like twins always attracted her as subjects.

The reasons behind her interest in twins is less clear than the little-rich-girl theme. There is the possibility that they are just another of her marginal groups; unusual, uncommon people but realistically they don’t fit into her category of freaks so it seems more likely that they fit into a group of subjects that represent split personalities; that she sees twins not as two people but as two aspects of the same person. This theme is carried forward by her interest in transvestites, women smoking cigars, men wearing bras, people with two personalities. Both Lisette Model and her therapist, Helen Boigon, refer to her as being schizophrenic and Schultz, who of course never met her, reaches the conclusion that she had many behavioural patterns that support this view. It raises the question of whether she saw two personalities in herself and that this drove her to seek out other people in society that either exhibited the same tendencies or were a metaphor for duality.

However, it would be too limiting to categorise all of Arbus’ work as an extended series of metaphorical self portraits, this would ignore the information Schultz gleaned from her therapist Helen Boigon and the views of Susan Sontag who both believe that seeking out new experiences was a prime motivation. Schultz extrapolates this experience seeking into a desire to “penetrate her subject’s lives” to feel what they feel and to experience what they experience. This idea begins to put into perspective other significant themes, her decision to not just photograph nudist camps but to join them and her active participation in the “swingers” scene.

Which give or take a few themes leaves us with freaks. There are many possibilities; it could be an extreme reaction to starting her career in fashion photography; the rejection of  the falseness of photographing beautiful models in someone else’s clothes creating a desire to seek out the most real people she could find. She hated falsehood, phoniness, and artificiality and searched for authenticity and sincerity; people born with physical differences cannot hide behind masks and therefore represent honesty. Irving Penn also appears to have sought ways to compensate for the endless photography of beauty in his professional career by making beautiful photographs of ugly things. (here) (12)

It is possible that dwarfs, giants and fairground freaks fitted into the setting of a childhood fantasy or fairytale. She repeatedly refers to her subjects as aristocrats, “born freaks were a  beautiful thing ….. they seemed like a kind of aristocracy” but, to my mind, the most likely explanation  is based on another one of her quotations when she describes them as “privileged exiles”.

If we discard the pejorative “freaks” or “marginals” and see her subjects as exiles, strangers in a strange land, then their status begins to reflect Arbus’ view of herself. She had escaped the  affluent, closeted, conservative and insular Upper West Side apartments of her childhood at the earliest opportunity, she had wanted to marry Allan Arbus at the age of fourteen, and adopted a Greenwich Village Bohemian lifestyle; a change so great as to have represented exile to a foreign country. Her collected quotations (3) time and again express her affinity to the exiles she found in circus side shows, the flea theatre and in Central Park. She saw herself as one of them, a beautiful, talented and clever woman who penetrated the sub-culture of exiles in an attempt to be subsumed into their world.

Notes on Text

(i) Lepidopterology is the correct term for butterfly collecting but I have chosen to stick with entomology which I used when discussing August Sander, which is the study of insects.

(ii) In the introduction to her monograph (3) which is entirely made up of her quotes she says “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.”

(iii) This debate has had a very direct impact on my own work. Like many amateur photographers I once considered it cool to capture vagrants, the homeless, or the exotic both home and abroad. During the Context and Narrative Course I researched Martha Rosler, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Susie Linfield and Susan Sontag’s views on the subject. I accept Badger’s (5) argument that even non candid portraiture is to some degree exploitative; so we are dealing with degrees of exploitation and tests to enable us to define acceptable levels of exploitation. However, even in that light I fundamentally disagree with Rosler’s idea that documentary photography is always unreasonably exploitative and that it serves no useful purpose. I believe all photographers should carefully evaluate their reasons for invading the privacy of the under-privaledged in society to test that their objectives are selfish or that, if the pictures are self serving that they at least pass the test of what Badger would call serving “the idealogical good.” See Critical Debates Around Photojournalism and Avoiding the Fraught Enterprise and Insiders / Outsiders and Documentary Photography .

(iv) Schultz says that “Analyses of lives that zero in on a person’s psychology and, in order to do so, make use of psychological theory and research are usually called psychobiographies.”

(v) Sex is not really part of this discussion but sex and Diane Arbus are difficult to keep apart pr to ignore completely. Schultz devotes whole chapters to her sexual adventures and hangups and her use of sex as a way to bond with or photograph her subjects as well as finding sexual agendas in much of her work. Bosworth lists her conquests and both biographers describe her promiscuity and search for new sexual experiences. Her childhood friends describe a girl who was hyperaware of her sexuality at a very young age and there are dark suggestions of incest and open comment, including by herself, about her probable bisexuality. If only some of this is true it seems an unavoidable conclusion that a proportion of her work had sexual meaning and at times she used photography as a means to an end that was not about art.



(1) Kozloff, Max (2007) The Theatre of the Face. London & NewYork: Phaidon

(2) Schultz, William Todd (2011) An Emergency in Slow Motion: the Inner Life of Diane Arbus. New York: Bloomsbury Press.

(3) Arbus, Diane. (1972) Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph. Fortieth anniversary edition 2011-2012. New York: Aperture.

(4) Sontag, Susan (1971) On Photography: Kindle version of the 1978 Penguin edition. London: Penguin Books

(6) Bosworth, Patricia (1984) Diane Arbus: A Biography. London: Vintage Books

(7) Jay, Bill (1992) Occam’s Razor. Tucson: Nazraeli Press

(8) Lubben, Kirsten (2014) Magnum Contact Sheets. London: Thames and Hudson

(10) Clarke, Graham. 1997) The Photograph. Oxford. Oxford University Press.


(5) Badger, Gerry (1988) Notes from the Margin of Spoiled Identity – The Art of Diane Arbus (accessed at Gerry Badger’s website 6.1.16) – http://www.gerrybadger.com/notes-from-the-margin-of-spoiled-identity-the-art-of-diane-arbus/,

(9) France, Louise (2008) People Thought I was a Freak. I kind of Liked That. (accessed at The Guardian 6.1.16) – http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2008/aug/03/celebrity.women

(11) Oppenheimer, Daniel. (2011) Diane Arbus (accessed at the Jewish Virtual Library 29.12.15 ) – http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/arbus.html

(12) Middlehurst, Steve (2014) Irving Penn – Still Life (accessed at my own blog for TAoP) – https://stevemiddlehurst.wordpress.com/2014/07/10/irving-penn-still-life/


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