Diane Arbus is best known for bringing to light those living on the edge of society during an era less accepting than the one we find ourselves in today. Her exploration of issues surrounding gender and her recording of those labeled “freaks” among the general consensus marked her as controversial during her career, her raw and unusual imagery portraying a very different idea of the New York City displayed to us in the work of other documentarians of the time. To celebrate her upcoming show at the Met Breuer in New York here’s a selection of her most iconic images.
Identical twins, Roselle, NJ, 1967.
This portrait of 7-year-old twin sisters Cathleen and Colleen Wade is probably Diane Arbus’ most recognisable work. The image, which was taken at a Christmas party for twins and triplets in New Jersey, shows the girls standing uniformly side by side – their height, matching dresses and haircuts characterising them as twins. The differing facial expressions of the pair, however, show the strong sense of individuality from each girl and begs the question of whether or not the twins are actually identical, which might be why their parents have claimed that this image is the worst likeness of their daughters that they’ve ever seen. This image gained more notoriety upon the release of cult horror film “The Shining”, when pop-culture fanatics began comparing the girls in the 1967 portrait to the spooky twins featured in Stanley Kubrick’s film.
Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, NYC, 1962.
The boy in this photograph, Colin Wood, claims that Arbus caught him at a moment of exasperation in this iconic shot. At the time that this photograph was taken, the subject’s famous tennis playing father, Sidney Wood, and his mother were going through a divorce – so their son felt lonely and was experiencing “a sense of being abandoned”. The scrawny child holds himself in a tense manner; his right hand clutching a toy hand grenade and his left clenched into a claw like position. This, combined with the disheveled clothes and manic expression on his young face communicates the frustration the boy held and, in his own words, the “want to connect” without knowing how.
A Young Man in Curlers at Home on West 20th Street, NYC, 1966.
Diane Arbus’ interest in gender and identity is clear in this intimate portrait of a young man in drag in the stages of getting ready. The ambiguity of the image lies in the contrast between feminine and masculine features – perfectly manicured fingernails on large, manly hands, overly plucked eyebrows arched on a rugged pock-marked face and a strong jawline evident under all of the make-up. The subject appears vulnerable in the intimate setting Arbus has photographed him in – he is not fully transformed and seems in a type of limbo between who he is and who he wants to be. The defiant look in his eye, however, tells of a determination and self-acceptance in a time where homophobia was rife and there was little to no acceptance of queer people. This image generated shock and outrage amongst the general public at the time, with one viewer going as far as to spit on it as it hung in the Museum of Modern Art in 1967.
Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, NYC, 1970.
Popularly known as “The Jewish Giant”, Eddie Carmel was developing as any other child was until he entered into his teenage years. An incurable condition caused by a tumor on his pituitary gland caused Carmel to grow to a staggering 8”9 – the height he was in this photograph that Arbus captured of him squished into his parents’ living room. Speaking of the image, the photographer reportedly stated: “You know how every mother has nightmares when she’s pregnant that her baby will be born a monster? I think I got that in the mother’s face….”.
Boy With a Straw Hat Waiting to March in a Pro-War Parade, NYC, 1967.
This photograph of a youth promoting pro-Vietnam war sentiments shows a different type of outsider than in many of Arbus’ photographs. This boy, at a time where anti-war protests were coming to the fore, is displaying his patriotism through pins on his lapels, exclaiming “Bomb Hanoi” and “God Bless America”. This photograph is a tense one – it portrays a perfectly normal looking young man, save for his props. Juxtaposing the vulnerability and innocence in the boy’s facial features with his rhetoric merchandise confuses the viewer about whether they should feel sorry for him or if they should be angered by his public display of such unpopular views.
Mexican Dwarf in his Hotel Room, NYC, 1970.
In Susan Sontag’s “On Photography”, the author accuses Diane Arbus of cruelly exploiting her subjects, stating, “In photographing dwarfs, you don’t get majesty and beauty…you get dwarfs”. This image of a “Mexican dwarf” leaning against a bedside table with a smile on his face, however, does not appear to have been taken with any malignity. The subject appears relaxed – comfortable in knowing that Arbus is interested in who he is, and well aware of her interest in photographing “outsiders”. Sitting as any other man would, the humour in the image comes from the seediness of the subject’s nakedness, his dirty towel and visible liquor bottle. The man’s dwarfism has nothing to do with the titillating aspect of the image, eradicating prejudice amongst the audience and also Susan Sontag’s point.
A Naked Man Being a Woman, NYC, 1968.
This theatrical shot is often compared to Botticelli’s famous “The Birth of Venus”, (in reference to the positioning of the subject’s feet), and has also earned the nickname “Madonna turned in contrapposto…with his penis hidden between his legs”. Both comparisons draw allusions to classical sculpture, the idealised form and beauty. Self conscious and provocative, Arbus’ model’s stance emphasises the dramatic nature of this shot – his body accentuated by the camera’s flash and his showgirl pose. As with “A Young Man in Curlers at Home on West 20th Street, N.Y.C. 1966”, this performer is halfway through getting dressed, which could bring about feelings of vulnerability in being so exposed. However, as is also seen in the aforementioned portrait, this man is clearly comfortable, making no attempt to hide his naked body from scrutiny and carrying a distant almost nonchalant expression on his face.
Untitled (6), 1970-71.
The Untitled Series is the third volume of Diane Arbus’ work to be published since her death in 1971. Taken in at least two unidentified institutions for the mentally disabled, these images were shot during a time when those with mental or physical impairments really were known as “The Others”. A delay in the issue of these images begs the question of why, with many speculating that the Estate of Diane Arbus waited to release them so that these more personal photographs might not be as closely associated with Arbus’ “freakshow images”. This intimate series features almost all women, confined to homes because they have Down syndrome. In the sixth image from the Untitled Series, we see three girls playing in a field, hysterically laughing with a complete lack of self-awareness – but the trio is play-acting just like any other group of friends might do. This series is most important due to the platform that Arbus managed to give these people on the margins of society – deliberately thrusting the unseen into the faces of those that shut them away.
Diane Arbus in the beginning is at the Met Breuer, New York, from 12 July until 27 November 2017