Thursday 4 April 2024

Diane Arbus: Photographer and Image

 Diane Arbus (1923-1971) was a controversial photographer who began working as a photographer after World War II in fashion photography but she soon started to suffer from depression and walked out.  Arbus was trained first by her husband Allan Arbus but then she was tutored by Lisette Model and this friendship did last a lifetime.  Arbus always wanted to photograph something different and 'Model helped her identify and accept what subjects she wanted to photograph—what Doon Arbus later called “the forbidden.” Art critic Peter Bunnell has said that Arbus “learned from Model that in the isolation of the human figure one can mirror the essential aspects of society.”'(Mac Austin, 2010).  Here I will look at an image, from Arbus' 'Freaks' collection and consider Arbus' ideas and how they connected to wider society.

Diane Arbus's photograph of Eddie Carmel in “A Jewish giant at home with his parents, in the Bronx, N.Y., 1970,”

The image of Eddie Carmel was borne out of Arbus's friendship with the giant, this was established a long time before the image was taken and continued afterwards.  The image here looks at first like a snapshot one might have taken in any living room.  The room itself including the ceiling is in the frame due to the sheer size of the subject.  The parents stand with their son, the giant, they seem to stand awkwardly between the living room furniture.  We are viewing just as the photographer as if we have had to stand back just to understand the scale involved in the image.  The photographer clearly used a flash as otherwise this black and white film image would have been far to dark in this interior environment.  Some have suggested it has a 'Weegeesque' feel about it; 'The atmosphere is added to by the Weegeesque stark flashlight, giving the picture the feel of a “found specimen of urban horror”, as Hevey observes “Arbus, as an ex-fashion photographer, knew what she was doing in using technical disharmony as an underwriting of the narrative disharmony“' (Whetham, 2016) There is technical disharmony here, it is an awkward shot the parents gaze up and their son the giant gazes down upon them.  They do not look at the camera, this is their world we are now in and it is a wonder, as one ponders what a mother must think, that she bore this son, an almost mythical human being. Arbus could have chosen to photograph this in many ways but she chose this frame, in the cramped environment of the family home and to include the parents.  

In a way, this was a masterstroke (in photographic terms) as the intimate family relationship is physically contained and claustrophobic in this miniature house but it is clear it must have been difficult due to scale for the parents to have an intimate relationship as Eddie is far above and far away from them as he is a 'freak' of nature and his parents are just 'normal' how could they have understood.  As a voyeur of this image, we are voyeurs, looking at something that looks so private. Arbus' own argument was;  “there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them”, but, it is really her way of seeing them – the tension that exists in her images between the empathetic and the exploitative – that draws us in and, to a crucial degree, makes us complicit in her transgressive art.' (O’Hagan, 2016) This complicity in the image does make it complicated for the viewer as the image makes us uncomfortable but fascinated and really should we be staring?  When we tell our children when they point out differences when they are young before they know any of the rules of polite society, to 'not stare, as it is rude'

Now, when we look at these images from Arbus we might be inclined to think that she was deliberately trying to be controversial however I don't think this is the case.  I believe that Arbus felt compelled to take these images and, her own life was strange and complicated, there are many views about how she came across to other people and her own transgressive lifestyle, perhaps these people were her people. O'Hagan writes about Arbus;  'The deceptive art of photography also allowed her to create images that complied with her neuroses: about life, about childhood, about outsiderness, physical and psychological.' (O’Hagan, 2016) At the time of these images, these people were outsiders and treated as such, some were, abused, marginalised and attacked.  they went against society, as they spoiled the natural order. In the Zwirner exhibition quotes from opinion makers of the time were included, an example states; “Arbus’s work shows people who are pathetic, pitiable, as well as horrible, repulsive, but it does not arouse any compassionate feelings.”(Smee, 2022) This does show that times have changed and some argue that Arbus' images due to their notoriety helped to change society's opinions of the marginalised. 'Arbus appears less perverse than many of her detractors suggest, but more of a social commentator in the vein of Frank and Evans before her.' (Whetham, 2016).  There is also the suggestion that, as a woman, Arbus had strayed into male territory and this was another reason she was so pilloried for the images taken.  Perhaps if she had been a man they would have, at the time, been hailed as opening society's eyes to those who try to remain invisible for fear of society's wrath. 

There is so much more that could be said here on Arbus and so much has already been written.  As a photographer I always hope that I am compelled to take the image I take, it is not a choice but an urge that will not go away until it is done. Arbus' images are important and however uncomfortable they make me feel personally, they have an important place in photographic history and without Arbus we would never have seen these people and now with the lens of time, these people can be seen as important, as they agreed to this exposure, and they, as they stare back at us, can teach us so much.  


Lubow, A. (2014). The Woman and the Giant (No Fable). The New York Times. [online] 9 Apr. Available at: [Accessed 4 Apr. 2024].

Mac Austin, H. (2010). Diane  Arbus | Jewish Women’s Archive. [online] Available at: [Accessed 4 Apr. 2024].

O’Hagan, S. (2016). Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer review – a disturbing study. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 4 Apr. 2024].

Smee, S. (2022). Review | Diane Arbus was accused of exploiting ‘freaks.’ We misunderstood her art.. Washington Post. [online] 26 Sep. Available at: [Accessed 4 Apr. 2024].

Tusa, I.M. (2020). The PhotograpHER addiction diaries - Diane Arbus. [online] Street Hunters. Available at: [Accessed 4 Apr. 2024].

Whetham, C. (2016). Diane Arbus and her ‘freaks’. [online] Carl Whetham photography. Available at: [Accessed 4 Apr. 2024].

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