A Cabinet of Curiosities: Diane Arbus’ New York Portraits


Similarly to 16th-17th century European collectors who collected fascinating objects in cabinets of curiosities, Diane Arbus took photographs (1956-71) that reveal a sense of curiosity and wonder toward unusual subjects.


In 16th-17th century Europe, cabinets of curiosities were all the rage. During a time marked by travel, wealthy collectors created microcosms in their homes, revealing fascinating objects that entertained and impressed guests. Each collection told a story about the world and explorers’ discovery of it, as well as about the individual collector. These strange objects were treasured not for religious value or wealth, but simply for being wondrous.

Following a similar spirit of excitement and enlightenment, New York photographer Diane Arbus collected her own catalogue of strange specimens in the 1950s and 70s. Born in a wealthy Jewish family, she felt cloistered from reality. To expand her view of humanity, she sought places where she had never been, people she had never seen, and experiences she’d never had. Photography was “like (…) going for an event.” She took viewers on an adventure—to circuses, carnivals, shows, nudist camps, parades, parties, morgues, drag balls, most intimate and private spaces, as if saying—come with me, you’ve gotta see this. Guiding her eye toward the underbelly of society, this daring artist cast an unflinching eye upon America’s usual rejects.

Diane searched the streets for subject matter, focusing on New Yorkers from her Greenwich Village neighborhood. The 1950s trend was displaying post-WWII wealth in a spirit of “conformism, prosperity, and abundance” (Luntz). Diane went the other way— “not out of any decadent search for the outré but because she saw [marginal people] as heroes” (Coleman). Integrating “miniature societies” with “their own rules, norms, and standards for appearance and decorum,” she showed there isn’t only one societal structure, only one way of functioning, of being, and of looking, but that others are just as acceptable as the “mainstream” (Millet).

Each person became an experience, a specimen to uncover and capture, as one pins a newfound species of butterflies onto a canvas. Her writing reveals novelty, excitement. Adjectives like “remarkable,” “fantastic,” “sensational,” “terrific,” “marvelous” and “thrilling” abound. In the park, she saw “young hippie junkies,” “really tough amazingly hard-core lesbians,” “winos.” Impressed but intimidated, she gravitated to them, heard their stories, got to know them. “I could become a nudist, I could become a million things. But I could never become that, whatever all those people were… They were a lot like sculptures in a funny way” (Arbus). Diane’s frames tell a unique story about New York fringe society, but also reveal her worldview and identity in relation to it. “[T]he unique interior lives of those she photographed” (Szarkowski) reflect back an “intimate look” into Diane’s own mental state (Kilbee).

European collectors too were obsessed with ‘freaks of nature’, seeking enigmas such as dwarves, two-headed men, and other ‘monstrosities’. The cabinets started to be seen as “chaotic freak shows” (Das), as did Diane’s work. “Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot…[they] had a terrific kind of excitement for me and made me feel a mixture of shame and awe” (Arbus). They had “a quality of legend,” like “a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle.” Except the riddle remains unanswered. Diane inserted herself into the world of nudity, for instance, perhaps to understand it (and herself) better. But an undeniable distance remained. It’s an experience, as if going back in time, “way back in the Garden of Eden after the Fall, Adam and Eve” (Arbus). Like the explorers, Diane (and her viewers) had trouble organizing and understanding her ‘discoveries’. Despite scrutiny, people remained complex. Evading categories and labels, subjects defied and resisted easy definition, maintaining a sense of mystery.

Rejecting traditional portrait photography, Diane exposed poverty, mental illness, alternative lifestyles. Casting an honest, human, unadorned light on people beyond the socially fabricated definitions of the beautiful, the acceptable, the normative, she “gave incredible weight and vitality to the world of photographic portraiture” (Luntz) while exploring the meaning of being human (Rosenberg). Yet, ethical and moral questions remained. A collector seeking exotic specimens, Diane faced controversy. Condoned for using/objectifying subjects with limited or no understanding of photography, in a reactive quest against gentility, affluence, and boredom, Diane was blamed for creating art that did not help people but solely entertained.

Her “homage to human diversity” (Clement) brought discomfort to a wide audience in the 60s and 70s by taking photography in an unprecedented direction. The 1967 exhibition at the MoMA caused an “earthquake” of mixed reception (Miller). It started a conversation about human diversity, ethical humanism, and artistic representation. In showing “our own limitations, our lack of empathy, our kneejerk reactions, our incuriosity, and lack of concern” (Greer), it also invited self-redemption via “boundless curiosity and deep sensitivity” (Dunlevy). It challenged and extended the definition of acceptable subject matter in post-WWII America. Documentary photography became more sympathetic or affectionate towards “the imperfections and frailties of society,” looking upon real-world “terrors” with “wonder and fascination and value” (MoMA). Defying decorum and tradition, Diane Arbus included marginalized subjects who created their own alternative communities and identities, while creating a connection between photographer and subject that brought a new dimension of intimacy, respect, and humanity.


Related Posts

Laisser un commentaire

%d bloggers like this: