Cast a Cold Eye

Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph copyright 1972 $15 Aperture, Inc.

Diane Arbus is notorious as the woman who photographed freaks. There is an aura about her, sparked by her suicide in 1971, which makes you wonder, "Is she one who saw too much and couldn't stand up to the vision?" For that vision was so intense, so brutally direct and precise, even translation into the photographic medium did not diminish its power. The collection of Arbus's work at the Worcester Art Museum testifies to this. Repulsion and fascination are wrenched out of your guts when your eyes interlock with those of dwarves, transvestites, nudists, howling babies, and even a human pin cushion. What small sympathy you can muster is directed inward, as you beg for relief from Arbus's harrowing onslaught, and are left numb when none comes. The impact grows stronger as the images accumulate, making it impossible to steel yourself against further mental Iaceration.

The experience of looking at Arbus's photography is so vital because the subject matter and style are thoroughly intertwined. They evolve into a vivid documentary recreation of the artist's personal encounters with reality. Breaking out of the stifling cocoon of a wealthy family, and reacting against the highly stylized fashion photography of her job, Diane Arbus made her foray into the freak world to establish a much needed contact with a hard core reality. She was motivated by this psychological drive and not by any perverse delight in the sensationalism of the subject matter. Overcoming ingrained social inhibitions, Arbus succeeded in the investigation of this new territory. An ample demonstration of her courage as a woman, the investigation also significantly extended the range of what is considered acceptable photographic material.

Arbus's relationship with those she photographed was hardly voyeuristic or exploitative. With the self-conscious use of the camera that portraiture requires, it is evident that she had the willing cooperation of all who posed for her. She even succeeded in photographing under very intimate conditions--in homes, bedrooms, and nudist camps.

By her explicit acknowledgment of the camera's presence, Arbus shunned the technique popularized by Henri Cartier Bresson called "the decisive moment." This technique implies an unobtrusive use of the camera to catch people at the exact instant of time when they reveal a significant characteristic. From the photographs which result, it is easy to distill general truths that treat people only in a simplistic relationship to the larger mass of humanity.

Arbus's rejection of this technique had many reverberations. It demonstrated a strong desire to collaborate openly and sincerely with her subjects, to put herself on the line, instead of sneaking a shot behind their backs as though they were part of a circus peep show. By obtaining prior approval, she accorded them the dignity and status of individual human beings. This emphasis on their individuality prevents one from lumping them together for any sort of superficial moralizing, or using them, for instance, as sociological evidence in an attempt to justify the value of photography to society.


Instead, each subject appealed to Arbus's sensibility as a unique person who dealt with reality in a specific manner. Her subjects' ways of enduring and coping with life touched off chords in her own psyche. She emphasized external detail and physical pecularities as a sign of mental turmoil festering below.

Not all the people who posed for her can be called freaks in the sense of having abnormal bodies, but clearly they fascinated Arbus by exuding the same heroism that she perceived in genuine freaks. As she put it,

There's a quality of legend about freaks. Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. 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.

In a very direct, frontal style, Arbus photographed the struggles of those attempting to re-integrate themselves into society and assuage their alienation. She did not deal with those who had already withdrawn--the winos, drunks, and dope freaks. Some altered their lives drastically in order to present a new self-image--changing sex, tattooing a whole body, becoming a human pin cushion with sharp needles jabbed through cheeks, lips, and neck. Others hide deep beneath layers of sequinned veils, Halloween masks, garish sunglasses, or gobs of heavy makeup. Arbus's titles pinpoint exactly the accoutrements used to buttress egos--"A young man in curlers at home on West 20th Street, New York City, 1966;" "Blond girl with shiny lipstick, New York City, 1963;" "A woman with pearl necklace and earrings, New York City, 1967."

Arbus's photographs are extremely horrifying and disturbing in their precise attention to detail and the use of strobe flash to delineate textures. Images of a drooling, grimacing baby singe themselves into your retina. A lady's face--swathed in layers of chiffon scarves, wrapped by a gauze turban and netted veil, huge drops of shiny pearls hanging from her ears, and a fluffy fur stole across her chest--peers out over a double chin somehow eerily disembodied.

Arbus was highly conscious of the camera's ability to record hard visual facts which cannot be ignored. Her style evolved from a grainy picture surface to one of extreme clarity. It dispells any aura of mystery surrounding her subjects that the human eye with its weakness and sympathies allowed to build up. The struggles and anguish these people suffered awed Arbus but she never forsook the objectivity of the lens. She maintained her own perhaps too rigid standards of dealing with reality.