Photo Of The Day

© Estate of Diane Arbus. Diane Arbus photographing the Doppelgänger Twins.

© Estate of Diane Arbus.
Diane Arbus photographing the Doppelgänger Twins.

Go Places You Have Never Been

Adore your subjects

Photographer Diane Arbus’s distinctive portraits showed the world how crazy (and beautiful) New Yorkers were in the 1950s and ’60s.

Arbus took a lot of photographs of marginalized individuals in society (transgender, dwarfs, circus people, etc) and of course she had her natural prejudices when she took photographs (as we all do). Her individuals would try to present themselves to the world in a certain way, but other people might perceive them in a different way.

For example, if someone dressed up as a rock star with chains and spiked studs, they may feel that they are giving off the image that they are powerful and cool. However an outsider might see this as frightening, and something abhorrent.

“Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot. It was one of the first things I photographed and it had a terrific kind of excitement for me. I just used to adore them. I still adore some of them, I don’t quite mean they’re my best friends but they made me feel a mixture of shame and awe.

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. Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”

On the streets there are so many things to photograph. But we have to be selective. There has to be a reason why we decide to take a photograph of let’s say a little kid skipping in a puddle versus taking a photograph of an old person sitting in a wheelchair.

© Estate of Diane Arbus.

© Estate of Diane Arbus.

General photographs tend to be quite boring. If you are more specific in your approach in terms of either your subject matter or approach, not only will your photographs have a stronger collective strength  – but they will have more power and meaning to the viewer.

When it comes to street photography, I feel one of the greatest joys is that it allows you to experience life in a novel and different way. Arbus shares some of her thoughts:

“My favourite thing is to go where I’ve never been. For me there’s something about just going into somebody else’s house. When it comes time to go, if I have to take a bus to somewhere or if I have to take a cab uptown, it’s like I’ve got a blind date. It’s always seemed something like that to me. And sometimes I have a sinking feeling of, Oh God it’s time and I really don’t want to go. And then, once I’m on my way, something terrific takes over about the sort of queasiness of it and how there’s absolutely no method for control.”

© Estate of Diane Arbus.

© Estate of Diane Arbus.

In street photography, we are often timid to approach random strangers and ask to take photographs of them. After all, it may seem weird for us to simply approach someone we don’t know.

However consider how much weirder it would be to approach a stranger without having a camera and having a reason to talk to them. Having the camera is a license to enter the lives of others, as Arbus explains:

“If I were just curious, it would be very hard to say to someone, “I want to come to your house and have you talk to me and tell me the story of your life.” I mean people are going to say, “You’re crazy.” Plus they’re going to keep mighty guarded. But the camera is a kind of license. A lot of people, they want to be paid that much attention and that’s a reasonable kind of attention to be paid.

Arbus also continues by sharing the idea that many people are quite humbled by being paid a ton of attention by having you want to take their photograph.

© Estate of Diane Arbus.

© Estate of Diane Arbus.

Diane Arbus was a photographer best known for her square-format photographs of marginalized people in society — including transgender people, dwarfs, nudists, circus people. Although she has always expressed love for her subjects, her work has always been controversial and critiqued heavily by art critics and the general public for simply being “the photographer of freaks” and casting her subjects in a negative light.

© Estate of Diane Arbus.

© Estate of Diane Arbus.

Arbus studied photography under Berenice Abbott, and Lisette Model, during the period when she started to shoot primarily with her TLR Rolleiflex in the square-format she is now famous for. Most of her photographs are shot head-on, mostly with consent, and often utilizing a flash to create an surreal look.

Arbus was born in 1923, and it shocked the entire photographic community when she committed suicide in 1971 (at the age of 48). It was reported that she did experience many “depressive episodes” during her life.

© Estate of Diane Arbus.

© Estate of Diane Arbus.

During her wanderings around New York City, Arbus began to pursue taking photographs of people she found. She visited seedy hotels, public parks, a morgue and other various locales. These unusual images had a raw quality, and several of them found their way into the July 1960 issue of Esquire magazine. These photographs proved to be a spring board for future work.

By the mid-1960s, Diane Arbus had become a well-established photographer, participating in shows at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, among other places. She was known for going to great lengths to get the shots she wanted.

© Estate of Diane Arbus. Eddie Carmel and his parents.

© Estate of Diane Arbus. Eddie Carmel and his parents.

Eddie Carmel, was a man who supposedly stood over nine feet tall, and billed as “The World’s Tallest Man.” In April 1970, a year before her death, Arbus visited him at the home he shared with his parents, and made this important photograph, A Jewish giant at home with his parents, in the Bronx, N.Y., 1970.

Eddie Carmel was the son of immigrants from Tel Aviv. He had lived a normal life in mid-century New York until age fifteen, when he began to suffer from acromegaly, a hormonal condition causing extreme growth. He soon needed custom-made clothing, and was unable to finish college or pursue a typical career because he realized that people could not look beyond his physical appearance. Feeling like a social outcast, he embraced a life in show business, celebrating and even exaggerating the feature that made him unique. This iconic portrait shows an ailing Eddie, age 34, struggling to stand upright just two years before his death.

Arbus’s photographs often explore the tension between normalcy and aberrance. Here, she touches on our obsession with superhuman height—a recurrent theme in folklore and popular culture, from Goliath and the Golem to Andre the Giant and the Incredible Hulk. Her image and its mesmerizing subject may thus be seen in both historical and metaphorical terms.

Artists and audiences have long marvelled at any deviation from a supposed standard, but the allure of the extraordinary is deeply intertwined with unease about the human body, its unpredictable abnormalities, and their attendant difficulties. In this way, gigantism and its mythology offer lessons about the infinite range of human experience, poignantly emphasized by Arbus’s photograph.

© Estate of Diane Arbus.

© Estate of Diane Arbus. Colin Wood in Central Park 1962.

Colin Wood, the son of tennis player Sidney Wood, was caught “in a moment of exasperation” by Arbus, becoming one of her most recognizable subjects as “Child with toy hand grenade in Central Park, New York City (1962).” Wood, who only learned of his notoriety at age 14, hated the image during his youth, especially after a classmate photocopied it and plastered it around school. Now, he simply thinks of it as a great conversation starter. To him, Arbus “captured the loneliness of everyone. It’s all people who want to connect but don’t know how to connect.” He believes that’s also how she felt about herself.

© Estate of Diane Arbus.

© Estate of Diane Arbus.

When you are specific when you are photographing, you are putting emphasis or a level of exactitude of certain parts of your subjects. For example, you might highlight the glasses on their face, their weathered hands, or the fact that they might be in a wheelchair. This is what you choose to show (or not to show) by framing your camera in a certain way, or even using a certain depth-of-field.

Realize that as street photographers, they aren’t always going to show their subjects in the most flattering light. After all, life isn’t always flattering. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be mean” — but follow your gut and your heart. Strive what feels authentic to you.

© Estate of Diane Arbus.

© Estate of Diane Arbus.

Everyone is drawn to a certain type of subject. You might be interested in photos of couples, photos of people jubilant, depressed, photos of children, the elderly, and so on.

I feel it is important to be compassionate to the subjects that you photograph. However once again, we all have our natural prejudices when we photograph – and our photos may not always be so compassionate.

© Estate of Diane Arbus.

© Estate of Diane Arbus.

If you also approach a certain subject matter and you want to be unique – don’t just see it how the rest of society sees it. For example children are generally seen as adorable and cute things. Why not try to do the opposite and show them as creatures that can be menacing? Elderly people are generally seen as old and grumpy. Why not take photographs that make them look gentle and compassionate?

If you want to make an interesting photograph of someone but you don’t want to arrange them in a certain way or ask them to pose for you – arrange yourself in a different way. Take a photo of your subject form different angles – form the left, head-on, and from the right. Crouch, or stand up. Change your positioning which will help give the scene a better sense of clarity.

© Estate of Diane Arbus. MissCoraPratt

© Estate of Diane Arbus.
Miss Cora Pratt

Make sure whatever or whoever you photograph that you are passionate about it. Treat your subjects with respect, and know the power of distortion that your lens can have.

Diane Arbus was not only an incredible photographer, but she also had deep feelings and emotions with her subjects – which I feel come across in her photography. She truly followed her heart in her photography, and took photos of subjects that both interested her – and that she felt compassion and warmth to.

To see the entire introduction to the Aperture Monograph of Arbus’ life, click here.

Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph

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