Diane Arbus

The first time I ever heard of Diane Arbus was when I watched “Fur”, a movie starring Robert Downey Jr and Nicole Kidman. The movie itself is a masterpiece but is just a free adaptation – or “an imaginary portrait”, as the subtitle says – of Arbus’ life so it’s not to be taken seriously from a biographical point of view.

However, the essence of Arbus photography is very well rendered in the film and appealed to me in a very strong way. After watching it, I ended up doing research on the Internet and realized how her work was original, unique and profoundly human.

Apparently, Diane Arbus retrospectives do not take place very often for the main reason that her descendants do not allow the reproduction of her photographs and limit the number of exhibitions presenting her work. That’s why I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to attend this event in Paris:

The place

The “Musée du Jeu de Paume” in Paris is a former real tennis court built in the early 1860s during the reign of Napoleon III, and was turned into a contemporary art gallery in 1986. More than the building itself, the surroundings are extraordinary and this particular place is one of my favorite spot in Paris: the building is located on a corner of the Jardin des Tuileries, which means that you get a view of the most significant and famous sites of the city: the Louvre, Concorde, Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe altogether! Wherever you turn your head to, there’s something beautiful to look at!

The artist

Diane Arbus (1923–1971) is an American photographer who kind of specialized in “marginal” people (dwarfs, transvestites, nudists, mentally disabled etc.). She was initiated to photography by her husband, and one of her first jobs as a photographer consisted in taking commercial pictures for her father’s department store. Considering she mainly started as an art director for her husband, Arbus had a very keen eye for staging the pictures to be taken. That being said, it’s not surprising to see that most of the photos she took are staged rather than spontaneous. She was also an admirer of Richard Avedon’s work (I wrote a note about him a few months ago) who used to stage his photos as well while trying to keep natural poses. And in some ways, we see the influence of Avedon’s  art on Arbus.

Diane Arbus was suffering from depression – a family thing since her mother also went through the same pathology – and encountered frequent and violent bipolar episodes. Arbus killed herself in 1971 by ingesting barbiturates and cutting her wrists with a razor at age 48.


“A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.”

Here are a few photos that I like in particular. I really love the way she photographed people. I really love how she managed to make the subjects so intriguing. Usually, when people are different, we vacillate between inappropriate fascination and physical repulsion. What is extraordinary in Arbus work is that most of the times the photographed subjects are facing the camera. Which means that they’re literally looking at us, the viewers. When walking around the gallery, I felt like there was some kind of a visual connection and proximity between the photographed subjects and the public. Actually, what Arbus conveys in her work is a combination of anthropological study, artistic rendering and emotional tenderness. And I can tell you that when I went out of the building, the one and only impression I was left with was that, in the end, I did not meet people with strange physical particularities but with very strong and fascinating personalities.

If you’re in Paris, the exhibition lasts until 5th February 2011. More info here: http://www.jeudepaume.org/