Diane Arbus Exposed

by Michael Torosian

Azure, September/October 2000

There is a line of demarcation in the history of photography incised by the work of Diane Arbus. Whatever vestige of restraint, or innocence, or decorum that resided in photography's depiction of people was eradicated by Arbus' acute and invasive eye.

Born in New York City in 1923, Arbus began her career as a fashion photographer for such magazines as Glamour and Seventeen. However, in the early 1960s she found her true calling - to expose the freakishness in humans. But this wasn't some kind of garden-variety slumming. Arbus upped the ante with aggressive compositions that penetrated the subject's space, going beyond psychological appraisal into something more akin to emotional vivisection.

However much Arbus' work may have shocked viewers when it was first exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1967, it was soon embraced by a public drawn to its power and sensationalism. Sadly, Arbus' suicide in 1971 endowed her brief creative career with an even more lurid mystique.

In the ensuing years Arbus has morphed into an icon of pop culture. She has been the subject of a biography (optioned for the movies), of a best-selling monograph published by Aperture, and her name has literally become a hip synonym for the outré.

This fall the National Gallery of Canada taps into the Arbus legend with an exhibition of 35 of her photographs. Almost all of the pictures appear in the Aperture book (which is still in print - now in a special 25th anniversary edition), so they are the most familiar and most widely disseminated.

It is a common first-impression to perceive Arbus' world as just a collection of oddities, but the enduring realization is how heartbreakingly vulnerable these people have become in her presence. Arbus demanded a lot from herself to attain this. She also makes demands on the viewer. Perhaps her most daring artistic achievement is that she forces us to look at ourselves and ponder the ratio of aesthetic appreciation and voyeuristic pathology that is elicited by our experience of her work.

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