Diane Arbus: Finding Beauty in the Odd

by . March 13th, 2015

‘Raw’, ‘shocking’, ‘unconventional’ and ‘powerful’—these are words often associated to Diane Arbus’ work. Diane Arbus was mainly influenced by German photographer August Sander, and captured what most people would call outcasts, misfits and freaks. Arbus’ work often challenges the society’s notion of beauty and normality.

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Before Diane Arbus was known for her photographs of the deviant and marginalized, she first did fashion photography. Along with her husband Allan Arbus, she contributed to magazines such as Seventeen, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. She also did a couple of photography assignments for Esquire and The Sunday Times Magazine. Despite having a good career doing commercial photography, Diane was never truly satisfied. In fact, she even hated the fashion world and decided to quit after being convinced by Lisette Model. Lisette is a documentary photographer who Diane studied with under Berenice Abbott. Lisette encouraged Diane to concentrate more on her fine art work.

Many would remember Diane Arbus’ haunting image of twins who are standing side by side. The icon image could be interpreted as a visual representation of good and evil as one face though identical has a grim expression whilst the other is grinning happily.  The image was proved powerful and even inspired famed director Stanley Kubrick. He loved it so much that he paid homage to the photo in his acclaimed movie The Shining.

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Much like her image of the twins ,many of Diane Arbus’s famous photographs have dark and raw imagery. An example is her work entitled: Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park wherein a boy with maniacal facial expression, with one hand awkwardly clenching a toy grenade while the other seems to be clenching unto something else. Sometimes she liked juxtaposing the normal with the strange. One example is the famous image of the Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents in The Bronx wherein Eddie Carmel the Jewish Giant are seen in the living room with his parents.

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Diane Arbus often made connections with her subject and often had subsequent photo sessions* with them over many years. Apart from being a photographer, Diane Arbus also taught photography at the Parsons School of Design, Cooper Union in New York and also in the Rhode Island School of Design. She was also given the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship for a project on “American rites, manners and customs”.

Despite her brilliance, Diane Arbus was known to have depressive episodes during her entire life. On July 26, 1971 while she was at the Westbeth Artists Community in New York City, Diane Arbus decided to take her life, only to be discovered two days later by Marvin Israel. Like many great photographers, Diane Arbus did not do photography just for the sake of photographing. She wanted to challenge how we view what is normal and beautiful.

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