Diane Arbus, 1923-1971: Photographer Who Found Unusual People

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I'm Faith Lapidus. And I'm Steve Ember with PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English. Today, we tell about Diane Arbus, a revolutionary modern photographer.

Diane Arbus is known for creating intense black and white photographs of very unusual people. She used a special camera that produced square shaped images. Often her subjects look sad, conflicted or physically abnormal. But they do not try to hide their insecurities. They openly stare at the camera. One art expert said Diane Arbus turned photography inside out. Instead of looking at her subjects, she made them look at her.

Arbus learned to mix the realistic nature of photography with its expressive possibilities. She explored how people live with sameness and difference as well as acceptance and rejection. These combinations created very interesting art that was often disputed.

Diane Arbus was born in nineteen twenty-three to a wealthy family in New York City. Her father David Nemerov, owned a large clothing store in a costly area near Fifth Avenue. Her parents collected art and were part of the "high society" of New York. The family traveled often to Europe. They helped their children express their artistic goals. Diane's brother was the famous poet, Howard Nemerov. Her sister became a sculptor.

After finishing high school at the age of eighteen, Diane married Allan Arbus. Mr. Arbus worked in the advertising department of her father's store.

It was Mr. Arbus who gave Diane her first camera. Diane soon decided to take a class with the famous photographer Berenice Abbott. The Arbuses eventually started taking photographs of clothing. These images were used as advertisements for Diane's father's store. After the birth of their daughter, Doon, the Arbuses started a business together. Their purpose was to photograph clothing fashions. Diane Arbus was the stylist. She would prepare the hair and faces of the fashion models who wore the clothing being photographed. Allan Arbus took the pictures.

The couple soon had jobs from important fashion magazines such as "Vogue" and "Harper's Bazaar". Their work was very successful during the nineteen fifties. They became part of a group of artists that were helping to redefine visual culture. They were breaking with past traditions to create a new look for a new decade, the sixties.

But Diane was not satisfied with her secondary role. She wanted a more active part in making photographs. She wanted to explore her own artistic expression and freedom. To do this, she stopped working with her husband. Then she started taking photography classes at the New School in New York City.

Arbus' teacher, Lisette Model, influenced her in many ways. She showed Diane how to use a camera like an expert. She also taught Diane to use her art to face her doubts and fears. Miss Model once said that Diane soon started "not listening to me but suddenly listening to herself."

Diane Arbus chose her subjects very carefully. She photographed many of these people in or near New York City. She often chose to photograph unusual people living on the edge of acceptable society. But she showed the common and recognizable side of such unusual people. For example, she took pictures of extremely short and extremely tall people. She photographed men dressed as women, circus performers, and even patients with severe mental limitations. She once said: "My favorite thing is to go where I've never been."

One of her famous photographs was taken in nineteen sixty- six. It is of a young transvestite. A transvestite is a man who dresses and acts like a woman. This man is wearing plastic objects in his hair to curl and shape it. He is also wearing makeup on his face to make it look more like a woman. The picture is taken from close up with severe lighting effects. In the dark centers of his eyes you can see the light from Arbus' camera. You can see every detail and imperfection of his pale skin. He looks directly at you as though he has nothing to hide. His look is one of interest and acceptance.

Another photograph like this is called "Mexican Dwarf in His Hotel Room in N.Y.C." It was taken in nineteen seventy. Here, Arbus uses similar dramatic lighting. She shows a close-up view of the upper body and face of this extremely small man. He looks directly at the camera with the suggestion of a smile. You can see all the lines on his small short fingers. The hair on his chest and face seems very close. You can almost smell the alcohol on the table beside him. You can almost feel the smooth cloth sheets on his bed. It is as though you have entered the personal world of this small stranger.

The expressions of these men are so honest that it is almost unpleasant to observe. Diane Arbus explored this tension in her work. She caught her subjects in positions where they show themselves completely. They do not seem afraid to show their imperfections and strangeness. They do not hide the parts of themselves that are not beautiful. They openly show their bodies and souls. Seeing the pictures, you sometimes feel you are interfering in the private lives of these strange people. You feel like maybe you are not supposed to be looking.

Some art critics believe Diane Arbus photographed such unusual people as a result of her background. She grew up in a safe and wealthy environment. In photographing the strange and imperfect people in society, she rejected her own social group. She revolted against her upbringing to prove that she was artistically independent. She chose to explore the unusual sides of society instead of accepting common subjects to photograph.

Arbus also photographed everyday people in a way that made them look very unusual. She was able to take the most recognizable people and environments and make them seem strange. For example, she took pictures of couples and families and even of female twins, sisters born at the same time.

One of her most famous photographs is called "Identical Twins." It was taken in nineteen sixty-seven in Roselle, New Jersey. Two little girls take up the entire center of the photograph. Their faces and bodies are exactly alike. They are wearing the same dark dresses and white bands in their hair. The girls look calmly at the camera with large, pale eyes. Although they are young, they look very wise, like they are intense little adults.

This image of the twins became the cover of an important book of photography titled "Diane Arbus." The book was published in nineteen seventy-two. It became one of the best-selling photography books in history. The photograph of the twins was also part of a major exhibition of Arbus' work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City that same year.

This show set new records in attendance numbers. Sadly, Diane Arbus did not live to see this show. She had killed herself the year before. She was forty-eight years old.

The photographs of Diane Arbus remain very popular in America. In March of two thousand five, the Metropolitan Museum in New York had a major exhibit of her work. The museum curators gathered many of her important photographs for the show. They also exhibited many less well-known works. But they also tried to show the personal side of this famous woman. They showed her letters, cameras and books. The book "Diane Arbus Revelations" documents this special exhibition.

Diane Arbus once said: "A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know." This comment helps explain what is so powerful about Diane Arbus's work. The people in her photographs show themselves, but a great deal about them remains hidden as well. Her images make you ask what you might show about yourself -- and what you might try to hide.

Today, Diane Arbus' images remain as fresh and intense as they were forty years ago. Experts say her revolutionary way of capturing people on film has produced some of the most important images in twentieth century photography.

This program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I'm Faith Lapidus. And I'm Steve Ember. Join us again next week for PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English.