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Diane Arbus – Freaks

“Diane Arbus: A Biography” is an amazing book, that I have read myself.  I highly recommend it!

Diane Arbus is my absolute favorite photographer of all time.  She is on my mind a lot the last few days after watching a Terry Gilliam movie which features a dwarf as one of the main characters.  This movie, ‘The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus’, is basically about a small traveling theater company.  Of course, the dwarf character is akin to the prototypical circus freak.  Anyway, the movie mostly stank but it got me thinking about the concept of “freaks” and of course, Diane Arbus.  She once confessed to a friend that she was “afraid…that she would be known simply as ‘the photographer of freaks'”.  Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, that is just what she became known as.

While Diane Arbus started out with a very promising career in fashion photography alongside her husband at the time, Allen Arbus, that was not be be her final photographic destination.  Eventually she grew to hate the fashion world, despite her talent in that arena, and quit the fashion photography business.  After shooting on assignment for various magazines for awhile, such as Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar, her work took on a different flavor.

diane arbus portrait

Diane Arbus 1949

“Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot. It was one of the first things I photographed and it had a terrific kind of excitement for me. I just used to adore them. I still do adore some of them. I don’t quite mean they’re my best friends but they made me feel a mixture of shame and awe. There’s a quality of legend about freaks. Lke 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. They’re aristocrats.” – Diane Arbus

Many people have been very critical of Diane Arbus and her photographic treatment of “freaks”.  They claim her images lack warmth and compassion.  My opinion differs in that I feel she had great compassion and love for them, as is clearly indicated by her quote above.  Her suicide in 1971, after struggling with depression for most of her life, indicates to me that she also felt something of an affinity with those who are somehow different or traumatized.  Having myself suffered in this capacity in the past, for years of my life, I think I “get” Diane Arbus.  I only wish she has seen the light and carried on…

[ A ] Diane Arbus - Russian midget friends in a living room on 100th Street, N.Y.C. (1963)

Diane Arbus Photography

 Diane Arbus Photography

Diane Arbus Photography

Diane Arbus Photography

Diane Arbus Photography

Diane Arbus Photography

4 Responses to Diane Arbus – Freaks

  1. So glad to find another who feels the same way I do about Dianne Arbus! Thank you for you post. Catherine

  2. kevin harrington says:

    Ran across her work a number of years back. Thought it was wonderful. Never had seen anything like it. I felt the same way you do. She captured the humanity of these people.

  3. Elizabeth Irving says:

    I think Diane Arbus was one of the most original and quirky photographers ever. her contribution to the art of photography is immeasurable. She keeps me enthralled.

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