Diane Arbus was renowned for photographing people on the margins, such as the mentally challenged, dwarves, giants, sideshow performers, crossdressers, and transsexuals. Was she merely a privileged voyeur of the vulnerable or an unsung champion of sexual and societal minorities? Here are five stories that will help you cut through the controversy.
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1. “Arbus Reconsidered” (Arthur Lubow, New York Times Magazine, September 14, 2003)
“She was an emissary from the world of feeling,” says the photographer Joel Meyerowitz. “People opened up to her in an emotional way, and they yielded their mystery.”
In leading up to a 2003 Diane Arbus retrospective of “Revelations” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Arthur Lubow chronicles Arbus’ wealthy upbringing, her development as an artist and photographer, and her suicide in 1971 at age 48.
2. “Wrestling with Diane Arbus” (Germaine Greer, The Guardian, October 7, 2005)
“A lot of nonsense is talked about Arbus’s empathy with her subjects; what is mirrored on most of those faces is faint bewilderment and timid resentment. The subjects have no names because Arbus neither knew nor cared who they were.”
Noted feminist, theorist, and journalist Germaine Greer reflects not-so-fondly on being photographed by Diane Arbus in May, 1971.
3. “Freak Show” (Susan Sontag, New York Review of Books, November 15, 1973)
“Instead of people whose appearance pleases, representative folk doing their human thing, the Arbus show lines up assorted monsters and border-line cases—most of them ugly; wearing grotesque or unflattering clothes; in dismal or barren surroundings—who have paused to pose and, often, to gaze frankly, confidentially at the viewer.”
In this 1973 essay, noted author and activist Susan Sontag rejects Diane Arbus as a humanist, disparaging her subjects as “grotesques” and Arbus’ artistic sensibilities as evidence of pessimism.
4. “Diane Arbus’ Noah’s Ark of Humanity” (Randall Decoteau, New England Antiques Journal, March 2005)
“Arbus’ scrutiny is uncanny — sometimes humorous, often critical or sympathetic, but seemingly non-judgmental.”
Randall Decoteau’s responds to attending the exhibit, “Diane Arbus: Family Albums” at the Portland Museum of Art in 2004.
5. “Photographer Diane Arbus Presented a New Way of Seeing” (Mark Feeney, Boston Globe, November 2, 2003)
“A higher function of the artist — certainly a rarer function, perhaps the rarest of all, rarer even than the production of masterpieces — is to enter the bloodstream of a culture.”
Mark Feeney heralds Diane Arbus as a “visual prophetess” of the disenfranchised who broke barriers between the public and private, and the mainstream and its margins.