Women in Photography: Diane Arbus

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“My favourite thing, is to go where I’ve never been”

Diane Arbus has been called sensational, bizarre, unique. Her distinctive and unusual subjects and gritty techniques make her images instantly recognisable, even amongst the saturation of modern image sharing. Arbus was famous for her photographs featuring the marginalised of society, with subjects ranging from those with disabilities, to circus performers and transgender people. At the time, public recognition of her subjects was non-existent, and her work was often touted as needlessly sensationalist and exploitative. However, she gave a forum and face for those who had none, and developed friendships with those she photographed over many years.

After quitting her job as a fashion photographer for Vogue in 1956, she began to photograph those who she found interesting. The streets of New York became a regular haunt, and she began to develop her distinct and surreal style, which was later to become so instantly recognisable.

She photographed with a compulsive addiction. She began to seek out the ‘freaks’ of society. Dwarfs, giants, circus performers and street urchins. Her early work is characterised by grainy and surreal images, often emotional, often bizarre. She challenged the conventional methods for photographing at the time, going beyond the standard practice of maintaining personal distance between the photographer and her subjects, which helped her create raw and surreal images. She garnered criticism for this, with some of her contemporaries citing her close relationships with many of her subjects as ‘unhealthy’. Despite criticism, Arbus photographed many of her subjects over several years, documenting the changes in friendships and the growth of relationships.

Arbus lived a turbulent and troubled life. She battled depression and anxiety throughout her life and ultimately committed suicide in 1971, leaving a growing legacy behind her. Her contemporaries and critics lambasted her during her lifetime for her artistic choices, subject matter and personal life. Today, however, she is celebrated as one of the most influential and revolutionary photographic documentarians of the past century, and her collection of portraits and profiles are regarded as some of the most important and powerful images ever taken.


Written by George Janes

Image: She began to develop her distinct and surreal style, which was later to become so instantly recognisable. Image by Angel Ronnie Beil


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