Diane Arbus Revelations

Diane Arbus Revelations (2003). Exhibition Catalogue. Random House Publishing Group.

This book accompanies the exhibition of Arbus’ work by the same name that occurred between 2004 and 2006 in the U.S.A, Germany and London.

The book can be broken down in to three main sections and contains  illustrations based on many of her photos, as well as extracts from her notebooks and correspondence.

The main part of the book is almost an autobiography as it includes extracts from Arbus’ correspondence with family, friends and colleagues; including some of the most renowned photographers and editors of her time. This section covers from 1923 though to her suicide in 1971.

The other main parts of the book are an essay concerning the significance of her work and a description of the techniques she used and the attempt to replicate these by Neil Selkirk following her death. This replication was done as part of producing a book and exhibition that followed her death.

The exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco in 2004 contained roughly 190 of her prints.

Diane Arbus was fascinated by people, particularly where there was something different about them. The body of her work clearly shows this, with very few landscape or still life images. I can’t imagine myself producing work likes hers, simply because of the amount of interaction that would be required with individuals and groups of people.

For me the best part of this book is the opportunity to read Diane Arbus’ own words from postcards, letters and notebooks. Reading what she wrote gives an insight to her mind and personality. Something that hasn’t been as apparent from other works I’ve read about her. The opportunity to read her words provides a chance to try to understand the thought processes and urges that drove someone very important to photography. Being able to do this without going through other people’s filters gives a different perspective.

The other part of the book that I found interesting to read was the extract from her autopsy report. Reading this adds another dimension to her story, something that has been missing from other books and articles.

Seeing the autopsy report contrasts with reading her words in that it turns Arbus into an anonymous female and then into a pile of human organs, devoid of any individuality or personality. It brings home the fact that, regardless of who we are, how wealthy we are, how talented we are; we are at the heart of it a bag of skin that keeps a jumble of bones and organs from flopping all over the place. An organic mass that when animated allows us to move about, manipulate things and shape the world around us; as well as allowing us the chance to document that world through a variety of means that link to our senses.

Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer

Lubow, A. (2016) Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer. Great Britain: Jonathan Cape (Part of Penguin Random House group)

Diane Arbus is an American photographer, born on the 14th March 1923, she died on the 26th July 1971 after taking an overdose of barbituates and slashing her wrists.

One of the most talented photographers of her generation, her peers were people like Robert Franks, Richard Avedon, she is known for her photographs of people who were on the margins of society. Sideshow freaks, nudists, transgender people (although this was before the term was coined), and others who were outside what was thought normal.

Arbus sought out the unusual, the ugly, the different in her subjects.

All through her career Diane Arbus struggled, never making enough money to be comfortable, she found herself resorting to undertaking photographic assignments in order to be able to keep her head above water and provide for her two daughters Doon and Amy.

Even so, she was able to find the time and opportunities to take the photos that she wanted.

Arbus was never totally satisfied with her work and never gave herself the credit she deserved, and that others gave her.

Born into the Nemerov family, who owned Russek’s department store on Fifth Avenue, she grew up unaffected by the Great Depression that was going on at the time. In 1941 she married her childhood sweetheart Allan Arbus, and they worked together as fashion photographers, Allan being the photographer with Diane assisting him during shoots. Together they travelled around the world on assignments.

Eventually Allan gave up photography and turned to acting, being known for his role as Dr. Sidney Freedman, a psychiatrist, in the hit US series M.A.S.H.

While Allan turned to acting, Diane became the photographer.

Lubow’s book paints a picture of a woman who struggled throughout her life. Never fully believing in her success and just managing to keep things together.

Arbus had many friends and acquaintances, both male and female, some of which became lovers. Her relationships with some male friends being complex, especially, when they became involved with other people and even married.

Although Diane Arbus never got the recognition she deserved while alive, posthumously she achieved it. One of her photographs sold for over $750,000 some time after her death.

The book is an interesting insight into Arbus, her life, her struggles and even her thought processes at times.

It’s also not an easy or quick read, at over 730 pages, including acknowledgments and source citations.

Having finished the book, the thing that I take away from it the most is that, no matter how talented the photographer, whether amateur or professional, this field can be a struggle to be successful. It is also possible to be blind to your abilities and to have a lack of faith in yourself, despite what others tell you.

Arbus’ story also shows that you should always strive to do the work that you want, even if you have to do other things along the way.

Finally, it also shows just how important it is to be able to look at the world and see the beauty and fascinating in things that society would shy away from normally.