Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Diane Arbus’

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.

Curiosity has ceased. Contemplation has set in.

In Death, Life, Memoir, The Examined Life on May 21, 2012 at 7:00 am

I’m traveling…er no…got in last night. Late. Jet lagged to nth degree…coffee…

This is a repost.


My cousin said to me a few weeks before she died, “When I come back I’m going to do it differently.” We chuckled over this. Sadly though, it was her confession of remorse, an admission of disappointment over the life she had lived–at least I think that was what she was saying. (The Latin from which the word remorse is derived means literally “to bite back.”) Later, at her death-bed, the pallid riddle was laid out for full inspection. I have to admit, as bad as it sounds, watching the death of my cousin was a curious, even interesting, thing. That was my reaction at the time, at the bedside. I thought it odd then–my reaction–and still do.

I recall that Diane Arbus sneaked into her dead father’s room to photograph his body–odd, yet understandable. My cousin’s death was over a year ago and I find myself thinking about it often, though the spectrum of reflection has shifted. Curiosity has ceased and contemplation has set in. Her death was a study; now it is a meditation. So much has been written on the subject, indeed, everything has been written in the shadow of death. I cannot add an iota of originality to the subject.

I am drawn to the idea of living life in preparation for its end. In some traditions this complex notion is reduced to something so mundane as a rote ideal, a doctrine, in the most extreme instances, denial. I guess there is nothing wrong with that, though mass consumption of rote ideals never seems to turn out as hoped, an observation I believe history supports. I am self-taught at everything so am stubborn as a result. I can’t accept a doctrine so much as rush down a blind alley, take a U-Turn or be lectured to. The big questions generate itches I must contort to reach.

I am reading both Montaigne and Nietzsche so one should not be surprised at such musings.

Didion’s book

In Death, Reading, Writers, Writing on November 25, 2005 at 1:18 am


Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking is, I suspect, a milestone in the literature of grief. Not being familiar with the literature I assume it must be so; for hardly can I image a more braided, tangled, yet orderly assembly of emotions and observations. Delivered by a masterful voice that is always careful and precise, this book is the account of Didion’s year following the death of her husband, the novelist John Gregory Dunne. A great deal has been written about this book. I do not need to try my hand at the turning the wheel too. But there are couple of things about it that affected me deeply. (This is after all, a blogg entry, not a book review. Liberty is mine to exercise.) To wit: I love the account of marriage that Didion relates late in the book.

“We were equally incapable of imagining the reality of life without the other. This will not be a story in which the death of the husband or wife becomes what amounts to the credit sequence for a new life, a catalyst for a new life….but marriage is something different. Marriage is memory, marriage is time.”

This is not so much an account of grief as it is the painstaking effort to rise for celebration. I read this passage aloud to Carole and thought long on the truth of it: the patterns that a long marriage ingrain in two people, such that they anticipate and know in unspoken ways; and when the pattern is broken, as is the pattern that was Didion and Dunne, the troubles that arise from the depths cannot be entirely fathomed.

But Didion is a “cool customer” –such was the phrase used by her social worker, meeting after the arrival of Dunne’s body at the hospital. She is a writer after all, among the best of writers. So precise is her writing, her account, that indeed she must be the coolest of customers. I thought of Diane Arbus photographing her dead father toward the end of this book. Arbus loved her father. Didion loved her husband. But genius is a constant and turns in untold manner and direction. And that is the other thing I like so much about this book: Didion is passionate about her subject. She pains to understand what happened in her living room that December night, 2003. And does she? When all is said and done, does she understand anything? I think not. But that is not a shortcoming of the book, of her, or of this reader. For really, what can anyone understand about death? Nothing. Nothing at all.


Perhaps you are interested in this short NPR interview with Ms. Didion: