Where History Meets Art - Stories Behind the Stuff

Diane Arbus On What We're Missing

Diane Arbus On What We're Missing

LiveAuctionTalk.com:  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Christie's, New York.

"I don't press the shutter," photographer Diane Arbus said.   "The image does. And it's like being gently clobbered." 

Whether Arbus was shooting transvestites, twins, dwarfs, freaks, movie stars, giants, nudists or street people, she had an uncanny ability to connect with her subject and then allow herself to be clobbered by that image.  The connection showed up powerfully in her work.  Mastery. 

I don’t press the shutter. The image does. And it’s like being gently clobbered. 
— Diane Arbus

The things in life most of us blink and turn away from like deformity, Arbus zeroed in on and forced us to shimmy up real close to.  Unnerving, surprising, intelligent, we end up looking at people we think we weren’t meant to stare at.  There’s intimacy that’s palpable in her work.  Scary.    

Arbus didn’t pretty anything up.  She had the courage to record things just the way they were.  Her work is a collision with reality. 

“A photograph has to be of something and what’s it’s of is always more remarkable than the photograph.  And more complicated,” she said.    

Arbus nudged us to focus on what we’re missing in things, the magic as well as the horror.  She loved to shoot flash, even outdoors.  It was a way in her mind to freeze an expression, open up shadows.

She was also afraid she would be remembered simply as the photographer of freaks.   In truth, she said she was no more a voyeur than any other photographer.  She was just more open, more truthful about her fascination with what society labeled “perverted” and “forbidden.”

Arbus was born on March 14, 1923 in New York City.  She married Allan Arbus in 1941, an American actor who taught her photography.  They worked together in fashion and advertising. In the late-1950s she started to shoot her own photos and liked to capture the people society often hid.

She wandered around New York City taking black-and-white photos of people who interested her.  From the local park to the county morgue not much escaped her lens. 

Arbus photographed short people.  She photographed tall people.  She photographed ballroom dancers, triplets, the blind and the mentally retarded. 

"My favorite thing is to go where I've never been," she said.  And she took us along with her.   

She had an uncanny way of catching her subjects in positions where they revealed themselves completely.  The rawness of her photos landed Arbus in the July 1960 issue of Esquire magazine.  That break brought her more work and her career grew.      

Her marriage ended in 1969 and she struggled with depression throughout her life.  Arbus committed suicide in 1971.  She was 48.

Nowadays, she is considered one of the most important photographers of the 20th century.  Few photographers are as controversial.   

On March 29 through April 12, Christie’s, New York, featured an online-only auction of 41 posthumous prints of the photographer’s images.  Every print in the sale was in pristine condition and annotated number 12 from an edition of 75.

Here are some current values.

Diane Arbus

Anderson Hays Cooper; N.Y.C., 1968;   $9,375.

Tattooed Man at Carnival, MD., 1970;  $23,750. 

Woman with a Veil on Fifth Avenue, N.Y.C., 1968;  $25,000.

Woman at a Counter Smoking, N.Y.C., 1962;  $30,000.

A Young Brooklyn Family Going For a Sunday Outing, N.Y.C., 1966;   $39,400.

Costume Lady in Sunglasses; Central Park, N.Y.C., 1964;  $50,000.

 

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her LiveAuctionTalk.com website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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