Doug Bruns

Thursday Theme Day: Diane Arbus

In Creativity, Photography on January 31, 2013 at 6:00 am
Diane Arbus at work.

Diane Arbus at work.

I’m sorry–I have not been precise in my use of language. A theme is not Diane Arbus. A theme is not Hemingway (last Thursday). However, as I noted in my post, Habits of Learning, I best come to a subject through the practitioners who demonstrated a mastery, though Hemingway thought mastery of writing impossible. Last week our theme, though not stated, was the craft of writing, as Hemingway understood it. Today we look briefly at Diane Arbus (1923-1971), the ground-braking photographer. (The name is pronounced DEE-ann, by the way.) I’ll let you determine the core theme.

In 2005 I traveled to New York, to see the exhibit, Diane Arbus Revelations, at the Met. I appreciate her photography a great deal, but it is not the type of photography that changes my view of the world. Robert Frank did that, Arbus did not. Of Arbus, Norman Mailer said, “Giving a camera to Diane Arbus is like putting a live grenade in the hands of a child.”

Notebook, 1959

Notebook, 1959

However, as a pioneer Arbus was unsurpassed, and such effort inspires me.* What struck me at the exhibit was not the art on the wall, but the vast collection of journals and letters and notes where Arbus so diligently worked out her ideas.

Of her images she has said:

“They are the proof that something was there and no longer is. Like a stain. And the stillness of them is boggling. You can turn away but when you come back they’ll still be there look at you.”


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


“And the revelation was a little like what saints receive on mountains–a further chapter in the history of the mystery…”

and this quote, which I find revealing:

“Once I dreamed I was on a gorgeous ocean liner, all pale, gilded, cupid-encrusted, rococo as a wedding

Mexican Dwarf in His Hotel Room, NYC, 1970

Mexican Dwarf in His Hotel Room, NYC, 1970

cake. There was smoke in the air, people were drinking and gambling. I knew the ship was on fire and we were sinking, slowly. They knew it too, but they were very gay, dancing and singing and kissing, a little delirious. There was no hope. I was terribly elated. I could photograph anything I wanted to.”

In 1963 Arbus applied for a Guggenheim Foundation grant. (She was awarded the grant in 1963 and again in 1966.) Her project title was, American Rites, Manners and Customs, and begins with this paragraph:

“I want to photograph the considerable ceremonies of our present because we tend while living here and now to perceive only what is random and barren and formless about it. While we regret that the present is not like the past and despair of its ever becoming the future, its innumerable inscrutable habits lie in wait for their meaning. I want to gather them, like somebody’s grandmother putting up preserves, because they will have been so beautiful.”

Young Man in Curlers at Home on West 20th Street, NYC

Young Man in Curlers at Home on West 20th Street, NYC

There was no one more adept at exploiting the voyeuristic curiosity of human nature. It is a remarkable thing, the ability to tap into an aspect of being, extract it, as it were, and put it on display for all to see. Such ability is truly remarkable–and when it occurs, being an event so rare, history takes notice. For the artist, however, such mining can be a burden of expression. (Diane Arbus committed suicide in 1971.  “I go up and down a lot,” she’d written a friend.)

I suggest, as with any visual artist, that you study the work if you want to learn more. You can find more images here. If, like me, you are drawn to the creative life and want to dig deeper, I suggest Patricia Bosworth’s biography, Dian Arbus.

If you wish to know more of the artist’s life, as well as notes, letters and more images, I heartily

Diane Arbus, Revelations

Diane Arbus, Revelations

recommend purchasing Diane Arbus, Revelations, the publication encapsulating the Met exhibit. It is a coffee-table sized monograph and narrative that is indispensable to the serious student of the creative examined life.

Thanks for reading,



* On inspiration: When you find it attempt to understand it. What inspires you and why? Construct a well of inspiration from which you can drink repeatedly.

  1. Thanks for the glimpse into the mind of an artist. “Like what the saints receive on mountains.”

I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading.

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