I picked up Diane Arbus: A Biography at the library without really having an idea who she was. It happened to be on a kiosk of other photography books that the Nora branch was featuring, and I thought – “hey a woman photographer. I should check her out.” I’m not sure why I have that gap in my education, but I was until recently pretty unaware of iconic photographers other than knowing the names of a few, like Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Annie Liebovitz.
There are relatively few of her photos reproduced in the biography, probably due to it being unauthorized (but still regarded as the generally definitive account of her life). So I probably approached her as a topic in the opposite fashion that most people do – I suspect most people are familiar with her work first and then are drawn to discover more about the woman driven to create it. I’m rather glad I stumbled into the backwards approach, mainly because if I’d seen her work first I don’t know that I would have been driven to seek out more about her. Off-putting would be a mild description of her photos. I can definitely see why they are iconic, and her bio gives me clues into why she was compelled to create them, and I understand that need. I can also see why there are so many young photographers who fall into the trap of imitating her; it’s easy to imitate her style. It’s also easy to attempt (without succeeding) to imitate her subject matter — but not easy to capture what she was actually trying to capture – people who are genuine and lacking in artifice.
About her subjects, she said: “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.”
I’m not sure I agree complete with her that people on the fringes are they only people in which you find that quality of authenticity and lack of guile. It might be somewhat easier to find the authentic self among people who have no use for masks, but it can be found amongst the everyday as well. And there is also an authenticity to be found amongst people who are joyous and celebratory as well.
But it seems from her biography that she was also a danger junkie, putting herself in positions quite different from her own background and upbringing. I also wonder if she was seeking something in her subjects that wasn’t actually there, or maybe was more present in her than them – like she was looking in them for an image of herself.
Either way, I found her as a subject far more interesting (to me personally) than her photographs, although I do agree that her work was extraordinary and very important. I think I just don’t see the world the same way she did.