Diane Arbus (1923 – 1971)
Diane Arbus (1923 – 1971) was an American photographer known for her distinctive black-and-white portraits. Frequently focusing on marginalised groups including the LGBTQ+ community, the elderly, circus performers and the mentally ill, she is recognised as an advocate for wider representation who expanded the boundaries of the accepted photographic canon. Diane’s photographs are undeniably provocative; critics have described her work as exploitative and revolutionary in equal measure. Some, such as Susan Sontag, have denounced her work as ‘based on distance’, failing to ‘arouse any compassionate feelings’. Others, including curator Sandra S. Phillips, have described Diane as ‘a great humanist photographer’ who offered dignity and agency to people on the fringes of society.
Diane herself commented that her images represented ‘the space between who someone is and who they think they are.’ In this sense, her work explores the hierarchical relationship between spectator and subject, posing new questions about the ethics of vision. Photographs such as Tattooed female impersonator applying make-up in a mirror, N.Y.C , 1959, utilise form in self-conscious reference to the interplay between concepts of self and other; as Diane captures the image of the sitter mid-transformation, the presence of the mirror which frames them suggests an awareness of the variable perspectives through which viewers will interpret the printed photograph. As Diane highlights the capacity of photography to illuminate both self-perception and outsider interpretation, she rejects the emergence of either viewpoint as the absolute reality.
Posthumously, Diane has become one of the most widely known American photographers of the 20th century. The first major retrospective of her work, held at the MoMA, New York, in 1972, attracted the highest attendance of any exhibition in MoMA’s history to date. The book accompanying the exhibition, Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph, edited by Doon Arbus and Marvin Israel, has never been out of print. Although she polarised opinion, Diane’s work – whether a meditation on photography’s voyeuristic inclinations, or an innovative study of personal identity – continues to influence contemporary photography at large.
By Katherine Riley