Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Photography’

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.

Gentlemen of Baltimore, Dave

In Life, Photography, Writing on June 27, 2012 at 6:00 am

Dave, aged 31

Another story from my project on homelessness, The Gentlemen of Baltimore.

Dave said he had been homeless on and off for seven years. “I used to do a lot of hard drugs. A lot. Then I got clean, but couldn’t go anywhere, couldn’t get off the street.” He described a vicious circle of social pressures and financial limitations, but said he was still clean after three years. “I don’t even drink now. I go to AA and NA. The worst addiction I have now is food and cigarettes.” He was well spoken and appeared quite sincere. “I thought this administration would end homelessness not hide it. I didn’t think poverty was a crime. This is my circumstance not my conclusion.”

A manifesto: On creativity.

In Creativity, Photography, The Examined Life, Writing on June 7, 2012 at 6:00 am

Lighting bolt of inspiration? I think not.

I received an email from a talented and aspiring photographer-friend recently. She had a question: “…how do you figure out what ‘projects’ to come up with that are creative, imaginative and [unique]?” Her question is at the heart of the creative effort.

I’m not an expert, nor do I have any profound insight on this. However, I have been practicing forms of the “creative life” for a very long time and have a few observations. Creative expression has, for me, taken many–often frustrating–turns, music, entrepreneurship, photography, art, and most of all–and most steadily–the written word. (That said, I believe one’s life expression–that is, how to live–the ultimate creative project.) In my experience, nurturing inspiration and learning to focus output are key.

There appears to be as many avenues as individuals to this pursuit. Yet, I think there are specific things a person can do to prompt results. I am going to make a list–presumptuous of me, I know. For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts:

  1. Nurture a craft. It’s the first step. “Inspiration comes out of the act of making an artifact, a work of craft,” said Anthony Burgess. If you make a photograph, make the best photograph possible–until you make the next one better. Study the photographs that work. Understand why they work. Exercise this knowledge. Of course, “make a photograph” is code for make a sentence, or make a melody, or make a vase…
  2. Refine your craft to the best of your ability. Perhaps your ability will occasionally lift it to the level of art. When this happens pay attention. There are things to learn.
  3. Surround yourself with examples of craft leaning to art. Diane Arbus‘s study walls were covered with photographs she tore from books and magazines. Writers have books, and study them. Learn all you can learn about your discipline and study what has come before you. If possible, sit at the feet of a master, go to a lecture, an exhibit, a masterclass, review a book (a review tests your knowledge of the craft), attend a workshop–do everything time and budget affords in order to learn.
  4. Indulge your sense of confidence. (This is hard and, to my understanding, never accomplished fully.) That is, gain purchase on what you are good at and build on it. The craftsperson and artist will likely never be complete in confidence, but without it, work will always be tentative and boldness wanting. Take pride in your published work, your exhibited work, your favorite creative effort–and understand its success to the degree your confidence allows. Nurture that. Grow bold.
  5. Commit. That is, once you’ve mastered the tools of your craft, once you are confident in your ability to execute consistently, commit to the effort. Do the work–therein lies the pleasure. Tennessee Williams said, “I’m only really alive when I’m working.”
  6. Lastly, work to satisfy yourself first. Let your curiosity guide you. If your effort is true, and your discipline pure, and your craftsmanship masterly, you will satisfy the need to “create.” Everything else follows. The next “project” finds you, not you it.
There is one more thing. Once you’ve pulled all this off, you’re ready to do what Faulkner did. When asked about inspiration he said, “I’ve heard about it, but I never saw it….I listen to voices.”
Listen to voices.


In Life on June 6, 2012 at 6:00 am

Michael, age: 43

Another profile in my project, The Gentlemen of Baltmore. (The backstory can be found here.)

Michael sat on a bench, alone, in a park. It was the day before Thanksgiving. He has been homeless for two years, since he got divorced and “took up drinking and drugging.” He had been locked up and when he got out he discovered that his wife had thrown out everything of his and filed for divorce. His goal now is to get identification. “She threw out my social security card, my birth certificate, everything. I can’t get a job without identification.” He took responsibility, however, for the mess he was in. He confessed that he got into stuff he should not have, drugs specifically. “It is hard. Sometimes you just need something to take your mind away from all this. Trouble is, it’s still here when you wake up.”

Gentlemen of Baltimore: Flynn

In Creativity, Photography, Writing on May 22, 2012 at 6:00 am

If all goes as scheduled, today I return home. I look forward to catching up with my friends at …the house…. In the mean time, one last prepared post, another story from The Gentlemen of Baltimore.


Flynn sat on a bench in the shade. There was a book next to him, The city Boy. “It was the first book Herman Wouk wrote,” he said. “I have an eidetic mind. The second definition of it is total recall, a photographic mind. That’s what most people are familiar with.” I asked him what is the first definition. “Science of the world,” he quoted, “intuitively apprehended.” He said he wanted to open a bank and cited regulations required to start a financial institution. He said his bank would also provide inexpensive used cars. “I will address the needs of moderate and low-income people.” I remarked on his creativity. “I have a lot of ideas. And they are all elegant.”

Gentlemen of Baltimore: Alphonzo

In Photography, The Examined Life, Writing on May 17, 2012 at 6:00 am

Please remember, I am traveling, out of the country and in the hinterlands. If you leave a comment, don’t be offended if I don’t acknowledge it. I like to reply to every comment, but likely won’t be able to do so until I return.

Here’s another profile from my Gentlemen of Baltimore project: Alphonzo


Alphonzo moved to Baltimore from the Eastern Shore. “I didn’t want to bring shame on my family.” He has been on the street since. That was five years ago. “I just got comfortable, not paying rent, getting high.” He says he makes money panhandling and turning tricks. He also has a drug problem. Two weeks earlier a drug deal turned ugly. “We were in an abandoned warehouse and the dealer told me to do jumping jacks. I did them. Then he told me to do push ups. I did them. Then he made me stand on a box and sing. He had friends there too and they started to stab me with little stabs all over. Finally, they heated a knife blade and burned my face. I went back a week later for more drugs. But he was gone. It was probably a good thing he wasn’t there.”

Thanks for reading.