… individuals momentarily confronting their own singularity challenge us to do the same.
This is from the title essay by Jeff L. Rosenheim in Diane Arbus: In the Beginning (2016):
There are and have been and will be an infinite number of things on earth:
individuals all different, all wanting different things, all knowing
different things, all loving different things, all looking different.
Everything that has been on earth has been different from any other thing.
That is what I love: the differences, the uniqueness of all things
and the importance of life. … I see something that seems wonderful;
I see the divineness in ordinary things. — Diane Arbus, high-school essay on Plato, 1939
In a high-school essay on Plato that she wrote at the age of sixteen, Diane Arbus described her sense of what was waiting to be discovered out there in the world. Her fascination with the differences between all things and, more significantly, between all people may have been part of what initially compelled her to pick up the camera. It certainly permeates her work from the beginning of her picture making in 1956 and sustains it to the end of her life fifteen years later.
… When Arbus first ventured into the New York City streets to photograph, she was exploring much of the same terrain — pedestrians in Times Square, bathers at Coney Island, street fairs in Little Italy — as her predecessors and contemporaries, from Paul Strand and Walker Evans to Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander, among others.
[line break added] Each had a distinct way of working and, with the striking exception of Arbus, a way of remaining anonymous. To hide his intentions and make candid portraits, Strand attached a fake lens to the side of his camera; Evans secreted his camera in the folds of a winter coat to photograph fellow subway passengers; Helen Levitt fixed a right-angle finder to her 35mm Leica to record kids at play in Spanish Harlem.
[line break added] Leon Levinstein and Louis Faurer found more subtle ways to hide in plain sight. Friedlander, in an ironic sleight of hand, manages to disappear by making himself or his doppelgänger the subject. Both William Klein and Winogrand use the force of their physical presence as the invisible center of their pictures, while in Robert Frank’s work, a lyrical absence resonates at the heart of the matter.
All these photographers developed strategies to remain personally disengaged and largely detached from their subjects, convinced that as documentarians the only legitimate record was one in which they themselves appear to play little or no role. By contrast, Arbus was looking for the poignancy of a direct personal encounter: “For me the subject of the picture is always more important than the picture. And more complicated.” This longing to know, this curiosity about the hidden nature of what she was photographing, coupled with her belief in the power of the camera to make that visible, is, above all, what sets her apart.
… In reacting to Arbus and her camera, her subjects are revealed almost as if they were alone, catching a brief glimpse of themselves in a shop window or a mirror. The exchange on both sides of the camera — of seeing and being seen — raises existential questions in the subject, questions that ultimately transmit themselves to the viewer.
… From the beginning and throughout Arbus’s work, individuals momentarily confronting their own singularity challenge us to do the same. The photographs call into question what we thought we knew about identity, gender, race, appearance, and the distinction between artifice and reality. At the same time, without embellishment or fanfare, Arbus brings us face to face with what she had first glimpsed at the age of sixteen, “the divineness in ordinary things,” and through her photographs we begin to see it too.