Portrait photography is an intimate art form. At its best, it is a conversation between photographer and subject where the latter reveals themselves in an honest way that the former is able to capture. It requires an incredible amount of trust and is very difficult to fake. Over the course of a career cut short by her suicide, a well-to-do Manhattan bred woman opened a window into the lives of people who lived on the fringes of society and showed us their humanity. Diane Arbus’s photography is a thing I love.
Arbus was an unlikely guide into this world. She grew up with money, married young to a man who was himself a photographer, and started a family. But lurking beneath what appeared to be the American dream was an artist’s heart that revealed itself as Arbus began seeking out subjects for her own burgeoning career behind the lens. In a city of stunning architecture and great wealth, Arbus went the other way - her haunts were the seamy freak show exhibits in Times Square, the transvestite performers, and societal oddities - the haunting image of two young New Jersey twins, the fragile Jewish giant whose parents gape up in wonder at him. Her photos are intimate and uncomfortable, but instead of mocking her subjects, Arbus’s eye captures their vulnerability and humanity.
Arbus’s work is so singular because it is so easy to understand how hard it must have been for her subjects to expose themselves in the ways she captured. Anyone who has felt the sting of social rejection, the judgmental eye of a stranger, the feeling of insecurity because you look different, act different, or just are different can see that struggle in Arbus’s photos. Of course, Arbus had her own demons. Her marriage was messy and ended in divorce, she left a trail of lovers in her wake and killed herself at the age of 48. I like to think it was because Arbus understood what a mighty struggle life can be even when it appears you have everything going for you that she was able to create artwork that has influenced everyone from Kubrick to Mapplethorpe.
Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy
Check out 2015's Things I Love: