Looking at the work of one great New York photographer, Weegee, has made me read a book about another.
‘Diane Arbus’ by Patricia Bosworth is a fascinating look at one of post war photography’s most influential figures.
Born to a wealthy Jewish family that owned a furrier in Manhattan, Arbus spent much of her life as a wife and mother to photographer Allan Arbus. It was only during the last 10 or 15 years of her life that she branched out as a photographer in her own right.
She had one of those lives that make you curse the fates that you weren’t in New York in the 1960’s.
Stanley Kubrick would come to dinner, Richard Avedon was a close friend, and Lisette Model was her mentor.
It would be easier to list who she didn’t know than who she did.
In spite of this, it was interesting to see how few magazines were prepared to use her work. In the end it was only commissions by the London Times and Esquire that kept her going.
Most people would turn away from her freak portraits, viewing them as distasteful. When they were displayed at a prominent gallery the attendants would have to wipe the spit off the images each evening, hurled from the mouths of unappreciative viewers.
Now of course so many have followed her path, be it Mary Ellen Mark or Nan Goldin, that we are used to seeing such images. So why do they still have a strange hold over us?
Lisette Model is quoted as saying ‘Never take a picture of anything you’re not passionately interested in’ and you can see the passion/fascination that Arbus has for her ‘freaks’, who she often got to know over many years.
As a person she seems drawn to live at the margins. She told an English lover that she had once sat on the back of a greyhound bus at night and let a complete stranger have sex with her. This was by no means an isolated piece of sexual exhibitionism.
Maybe this quality in her, the desire to push things to the limits, is what we see in her obsessive identification with people who seem very much outside societies norms. Be it the tattooed man, the boy with his hair in curlers, the Mexican dwarf or even the triplets that gaze out of us from their bedroom.