A revealer of souls

Diane Arbus’s striking portraits illuminate the small tragedies of life

Diane Arbus
Timothy Taylor Gallery, London W1

“I really believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them.” Diane Arbus’s photographs of people, many of whom were on the margins of life, were rooted in an understanding of the relationship between photographer and subject. Attuned to the small tragedies of contemporary life, she was to photography what Raymond Carver was to literature. As John Szarkowski, organiser of the Museum of Modern Art’s landmark 1967 “New Documents” exhibition, said: “The portraits of Diane Arbus show that all of us – the most ordinary and most exotic of us – are on closer scrutiny remarkable.”

Arbus was born Diane Nemerov to a wealthy Jewish family in 1923; her father was the son of a Russian immigrant and her mother the daughter of the owners of Russek’s Fur Store in New York. The large apartment, the cooks and chauffeurs led her to have a “sense of unreality”, further complicated by her father’s frequent absence at work and her mother’s depression. At the age of 18 she married Allan Arbus, an employee at her parents’ store, whom she had met when she was 13. It was he who gave her her first camera. They worked together in fashion photography until she went her own way professionally, after which their marriage broke down. In July 1971, at the age of 48, she ended her own life with pills and a razor. Like Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, she was beautiful, tragic and complicated.

By the 1960s her portraits for magazines such as Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar had assumed a distinctive look. She would frame her subjects in ordinary settings, posed looking straight at the camera. Unblinking and quizzical, they assumed an air of disquiet, as if some secret was about to be exposed. No sentimentalist, she began to seek out the people she wanted to photograph: young children and socialites, nudists and dwarfs, transvestites and circus performers.

Arbus has been accused of being interested only in aberration, a poor little rich girl getting her kicks from life’s seamy side, from tortured sexual identities and the shock value of mental feebleness and physical deformity. Even now, many of her images seem shocking, in that they bring the viewer up close to experience the damaged humanity behind the glitter, the showgirl outfits and socialite dresses.

Why did people agree to let her into the privacy of their bedrooms and reveal themselves at their most vulnerable?

In this exhibition there are plenty of such examples – the stripper with bare breasts in her sordid dressing room in Atlantic City in 1962, who sits in spangled armbands, not bothering to disguise her spare tyre; or the “naked man being a woman in his room in NYC” in 1968, posing provocatively with his hand on his hip and his genitals tucked away between his legs; or the nudist lady in a flower-petal hat and diamanté swan sunglasses. There is something complicit in these images, as if the subjects needed Arbus as much as she needed them.

Most of her photographs depended on her subject’s active participation; being photographed gave a moment of colour to their otherwise anonymous lives. People must have been flattered. Inside they simply felt themselves, and did not realise that, in front of her lens, whether they were Mrs T Charlton Henry, a raddled dowager from Philadelphia in a negligee, or a Puerto Rican woman with heavily painted eyes and a beauty mark, they would end up looking like axe murderers.

But it is her photographs of people in residences for what is euphemistically called “developmental difficulties” that are the hardest to look at. Those with Down’s syndrome or with other deformities are dressed in masks, their faces painted as if for some medieval pageant. Arbus loved “freaks”. As she explained: “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 . . . Freaks were born with trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”

Perhaps, in the end, this is the true power of her images – that they not only throw light on those who seem odd and dispossessed, but that they illuminate our own responses when faced with the different and the damaged. In that sense Arbus is a revealer of souls.

Until 31 August the National Museum Cardiff will also present Arbus’s work under the banner “Artist Rooms”, collected by Anthony d’Offay and acquired by the nation in February 2008

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