Article by Anna C. Purcell in Berlin; Wednesday, Jun. 27, 2012.
“I really believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them.” – Diane Arbus
A Diane Arbus photograph can–and most likely will– change your life. Her stunning depictions, which are mostly from New York in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s, present an eclectic group of people who are both familiar and foreign. With such photographs, she challenges our perceptions, forcing us to reevaluate the bilateral nature of human knowledge: how much does appearance inform us of one’s actual identity? What is an act, and what is reality? In essence, how much truth is undetected by the ordinary human eye?
By capturing various groups within society- couples, children, the disabled, nudists, transvestites, those in the spotlight, and those just under streetlights; those lounging in Central Park, and those performing on Coney Island- Diane Arbus anthropologically illustrated the diversity and depth of her surroundings. She highlights the clandestine peculiarity of the seemingly average, while exposing the striking beauty of those who, to most, teeter on the aesthetic fringe.
Born in New York City on March 14, 1923, Diane Arbus was raised amongst the same eccentricity and diversity she later captured in her photographs. At the young age of eighteen, she married Allan Arbus, a man who indelibly morphed her forever, not only emotionally, but also through his gifting of a Graflex 2 1/4 x 3 1/4 camera. Starting as an amateur, she did not seriously pursue photography until 1955-1957, when she studied under Lisette Model, a well-known Austrian- American portraitist. Model’s influence on Arbus is undeniable: both photographers approach their subjects with uncompromising attention to specificity and detail.
Her first published photographs were featured in a 1960 Equire, under a collection entitled “The Vertical Journey.” Soon, Diane Arbus was an irrefutable talent. In 1963 and 1966, she was granted Guggenheim fellowships. In 1967, she was featured in the show New Documents at the Museum of Modern Art. Until the time of her death, Arbus prolifically and successfully created work, in addition to teaching a variety of photography courses. Tragically, on July 26, 1971, at the age of forty-eight, Arbus took her own life.
An astonishing and diverse collection of two hundred Arbus photographs opened on June 22nd at the Martin-Gropius- Bau, providing viewers exposure to her most iconic pieces. Intentionally minimalist in its approach, the retrospective challenges visitors to engage exclusively with the intrinsic power of the photographs. There are no informational placards, no explanations of her work; instead, the pieces stand alone with the artist’s original titles, allowing viewers to see her subjects just as she did, unfettered by others’ perceptions.
Exceptional, and in many ways, haunting, the works and personal legend of Diane Arbus remain a significant reminder of the fallibility of external truth.
The new retrospective at the Martin-Gropius-Bau gives us a vivid understanding of the amazing complexity of people, challenging us to see both her photographs and also our quotidian interactions in a more meaningful way.
Anna C. Purcell, is pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in English and American Literature. Originally from New York, she is currently living and studying in Berlin.