“I always thought of photography as a naughty thing to do—that was one of my favourite things about it, and when I first did it I felt very perverse.” — Diane Arbus
This phase of her career began with a sequence on an autopsied corpse with open ribcage, lying on a dissection table (1959). These images are emblematic of her merciless striving for truth in her approach to human reality. A familiarity with the photographer August Sander is reflected not only in her psychological portrayal of the people of her time, covering a great range of social groupings and individuals—the laconic objectivity of her portraits may also have been inspired by her great German predecessor. Yet Arbus left Sander's system of social classes and social etiquette behind to scrutinize the polarized America of the 1960s.
Again and again it is average people who seem to reveal most about the country: the boy in a straw hat, waiting to march in a pro-Vietnam War demonstration (1967); the kid with a toy hand grenade in Central Park (1962); or Teenage Couple on Hudson Street, N.Y.C. (1963). Normal families with children, elderly couples dancing or sitting on a park bench, a few celebrities, and a great many lonely outsiders were the people Arbus captured. And when the inhabitants of an apartment were unavailable, their living room furniture or a Christmas tree with presents in the corner told their story with equal eloquence.
"Everybody has that thing where they need to look one way but they come out looking another way that's what people obeserve." Arbus once aptly described the fine fissure in our self-image, that "gap between intention and effect" on which her portraiture focused. "Scrutinizing reality"—she made no greater or lesser demand of her art.
Her images from the fringes of society perhaps did most to invalidate stereotypes. Arbus pictured transvestites applying make-up in their dressing rooms, celebrating a birthday, or with their hair in curlers; she photographed side-show performers, circus artists, and dwarfs; she attended dances for the handicapped. It was the rites of contemporary America she set out to record, the parties, contests, waiting rooms, theater rehearsals, initiations. The couple in The Junior Interstate Ballroom Dance Champions, Yonkers, N.Y. (1962), hardly more than children, reflect the potential of this superb project.
Paradoxically, yet quite logically, her images frequently include masked or costumed figures, her concern being to look behind the masks we all wear. A special twist on the unmasking theme was provided by the nudist camps Arbus visited several times—a world diametrically opposed to that seen in fashion photography.
Although she focused on individuals, her portraits convey general statements on the human condition. In view of the impossibility of taking pictures of everybody on the planet, she dared—by depicting individual idiosyncrasies—to convey the image of “a kind of generalized human being."
Excerpt taken from 50 Photographers You Should Know by Peter Stepan