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The Enduring Relevance of Diane Arbus, America's Portraitist

Her iconic 1960s photographs are as striking as ever.
September 28, 2016, 4:56am
"A young man in curlers at home on West 20th St., N.Y.C."(1966). All images courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia

For the first time since it acquired them in the early 1980s, Australia’s National Gallery is displaying its entire collection of Diane Arbus prints. Diane Arbus: American Portraits includes iconic shots alongside rarer and more unique images rarely seen by the public. The show provides a fascinating look at the work of one of America’s most famous photographers, known for capturing unusual subjects and imbuing them with a new, raw kind of power.

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Speaking to The Creators Project, NGA photography curator Anna O’Hehir explains the enduring appeal of Arbus’s photographs. “It’s the intensity,” she says. “She had this singular, almost over-the-top way of engaging with people…she drew something out in them.”

Looking into the eyes of her strange, piercing subjects, you understand that they have been transformed by the camera. “There was a secret, magical thing that happened when she photographed people,” O’Hehir says. “Coloured of course by her acerbic, black-humoured way of seeing the world—but seen nonetheless.”

"Patriotic young man with a flag, N.Y.C." (1967)

It would be easy to view Arbus as a photographer whose art was in the choosing of her subjects. She certainly found interesting people to photograph—strange children playing in the park, creepy twins, impoverished recluses. Yet her skill was also in her use of the camera, and her studied approach to portraiture.

“She had an astoundingly thoughtful and sophisticated relationship with the medium,” says O’Hehir. “She combined a snapshot aesthetic with classic stand-in-front-of-the-camera-and-look-at-it style of portraiture—which gave her portraits a liveliness combined with a gravity that was a brilliant breakthrough strategy on her part.”

"Identical twins, Roselle, N.J., 1967" (1967)

Arbus has had a profound influence on contemporary photography, which is why the National Gallery of Australia has chosen to exhibit their collection of her prints alongside those of two other canonical photographers, William Eggleston and Katy Grannan. The latter has been called the true heir to Arbus, given her interest in photographing people who would otherwise go undocumented.

"Mae West on bed" (1965)

“Arbus’s interest in creating a psychological portrait or unknown people was profoundly influential,” O’Hehir says. “So much of contemporary photography has and continues to be obsessed with identity and how it’s formed, and that’s fundamentally what Arbus is about…a quarter of the images in the famous Arbus Aperture monograph are of children or young people because she was fascinated by that moment of identity being formed.”

Arbus’s photographs are as striking today as they ever were. Perhaps they’ve even grown in power. “Because she engaged so fully—to use a notion that’s current at the moment—with mindfulness, her work is almost paradoxically timeless,” O’Hehir says.

"Child with toy hand grenade, in Central Park, New York City" (1962)

“It’s about our profound humanity, getting through life as best we can despite the difficulties, despite or because of our flaws and frailties, our vulnerabilities.”

Diane Arbus: American Portraits continues until October 30. Find out more about the show here.

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