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January 16th, 2024

Diane Arbus And The Darkness Within

I found this on my porch this morning so either the delivery person left it late last night or sometime before 6am today.

Of the great film photographers, there are four whose influence have always been with me, going back to my teen years. David Plowden, Margaret Bourke-White, Robert Frank…and one I tend to mention with some hesitation: Diane Arbus.

Her photography is like an ice pick to the soul, or at least it is to the painfully romantic such as myself. But she was unquestionably one of the grand masters of the art form. She knew what she was about, and she hit her mark with precision.

If I were to choose one image that most represents her to me, it wouldn’t be the boy with the toy hand grenade, or the work she did with asylum patients, the images of midgets, transvestites, old people. It would be the shot of the Hollywood set house on a hill. It’s an unusual one for her in that there are no people in it, its subject is in the distance, and the sky and space around the subject are essential to it. I don’t think there is anything else in her oeuvre quite like it.

Diane Arbus: A house on a hill, Hollywood, Cal. 1963 

This one shot to me is the heart of it. Everything she ever did emerges from what she is saying in that one shot. 

I could not be more distant from her in my own work, and yet it speaks to me and I admit a lot of it resembles her. I admire David Plowden for his straight on composition and for the deeply felt, timeless silence within. I love the drama in the photography of Margaret Bourke-White, and her mastery of the black and white process, which is every bit as good as Ansel Adams’. Robert Frank’s work captures moments that show us the humanity of its subjects in their environment. He is as humane as Diane Arbus is alienated. I don’t think anyone who knew her was surprised by her suicide. Saddened and grief stricken surely, but how can you look at the body of her work and not be surprised at how she ended it.

Her work speaks to me because I am usually wandering down the same dark paths she did. Why I didn’t fall in like she did I have no idea, other than different metals behave differently in the fire. Maybe I’m just too curious to be completely demoralized. Or maybe I just accept the indifference of the universe in a way she never could. There is no despair in my photos, at least I hope that’s not what anyone sees in them. What I do in my art photography is, as best as I can tell from a lifetime of doing it, maybe something akin to brutalism, a sensation of the gods talking past you, conversing among themselves and not even seeing you, timeless, eternal, indifferent. It’s the silence that moves me. I am more like David Plowden than Diane Arbus. There is no silence in her work, just a lot of despair.

She was one of the grand masters. I admire her because she knew what she was about and she hit it with precision every time. That not only takes skill, it takes a lot of self examination to be that good at it. I have one of her photography books, and I bought this because it promises to tell me more about the artist and hopefully I get a better idea of why she fell into the darkness she saw everywhere.

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