Thinking of Diane Arbus

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Wednesday 14 July 2010
Ron Brownson

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I have been a committed fan of Diane Arbus’ photographs ever since I was a teenager. My mother purchased me a subscription to Creative Camera and it was in that lovely magazine that I saw my first Arbus photograph in April 1970. This was the totally bizarre portrait of Viva Superstar at home, New York City 1968. Viva looked as if she was in the process of some astonishing vision.

Arbus was an utterly fearless artist. She always wanted to terrify herself with the people that she photographed. Imagine someone who says: "I have never taken a picture I've intended. They're always better or worse." Those are the words of one tough and resolute artist!

Diane was something like a Hassidic mystic in the manner in which she wrote and spoke about what mattered to her as a photographer. Her comments are like riddles and they are essential to understanding her work as an American Jewish artist:

“A photograph is a secret about a secret.”
“I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them.”
"One thing that struck me very early is that you don't put into a photograph what's going to come out. Or, vice versa, what comes out is not what you put in."
“The more specific you are, the more general it will be.”

Auckland Art Gallery presented the fantastic Museum of Modern Art survey exhibition of Diane Arbus’ photographs from December 1978 until January 1979. I think that this was the first monographic show by an international contemporary photographer to have been presented in New Zealand. It was an eye-opener for everyone who saw it. We advertised the exhibition in local cinemas with the an image of the Lady at a masked ball with two roses on her dress, New York City1967.

The Summer 2010 issue of Aperture magazine (number 199) reproduces nine “Unknown or almost-known photographs” by Diane Arbus selected by the American artist Robert Gober that were first shown at the wonderful Fraenkel Gallery based in San Francisco. See: http://www.fraenkelgallery.com/

The Estate of Diane Arbus is firm about where the artist’s images are reproduced and even the Fraenkel Gallery does not reproduce her work on their website. Yet, let me give you some of her photograph’s memorable titles:
Christ in a lobby, New York City
Two girls in curlers, New York City
Teenager with a baseball bat
Barefoot child jumping rope, New York City
Couple dancing in front of a curtain, New York City
Five members of the Monster Fan Club, New York City
Jack Dracula at a bar, New York City


If you could only possess one book on an American photographer I recommend:
Diane Arbus – Revelations, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2003
(ISBN 08129 7220 1). This book is a remarkable introduction to a profound camera artist. See also the important 1972 mongraph Diane Arbus (Penguin Books, ISBN 0713907274) which is arguably one of the most important photographic books ever produced. It is now rare and valuable.

For more quotes by Diane Arbus please see
http://www.photoquotes.com/showquotes.aspx?id=90&name=Arbus,Diane