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Issue 232

The Unusual Vision of Diane Arbus

On the occasion of the centennial of the artist’s birth, Lynne Tillman offers a close reading of a lesser known photograph

BY Lynne Tillman in Features , One Takes | 27 JAN 23

A gangly white boy senses something behind him, turns and spots a woman with a camera pointed at him. His face registers surprise, so his expression is blank, empty. The sensation leaves him without words. Now the boy is vulnerable.

‘In a world full of danger, to be a potentially seeable object is to be constantly exposed to danger,’ R.D. Laing writes in The Divided Self (1960), ‘by the simple fact of being visible to others.’ Diane Arbus read Laing, who analyzed people defined as psychotic or schizophrenic and believed incapable of talk therapy. During the 1960s, an anxious and rebellious decade, Laing’s books were eagerly awaited by people who rejected conventional ideas about normality. Arbus was one, and that concern dominated her oeuvre.

Diane Arbus, Tattooed man at a carnival, MD. 1970. Courtesy: © The Estate of Diane Arbus

Her 1972–73 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York made her famous and infamous. On display: photographs of a dwarf, ‘abnormal’ people and ‘normal’ ones looking discomforted, residents of homes for developmentally disabled people. After seeing the show, my father told me he was disgusted. Susan Sontag took umbrage in On Photography (1977): ‘Do they know how grotesque they are? It seems as if they don’t.’

‘Polite’ society considered many of Arbus’s photographs obscene: literally, they should be kept out of sight. She dared to visualize unusual subjects, and this work appeared in museums and galleries to be appreciated as art.

In Boy stepping off the curb, N.Y.C. 1956, a ‘normal’ boy stops. Caught unaware, shorn of any defence, shorn of the knowledge of the world around him, of the dangers he faces, he appears innocent. All alone, stepping off a curb, suddenly he is ‘visible to others’.

Diane Arbus, Boy stepping off the curb, N.Y.C. 1956 (1957–58). Courtesy: © The Estate of Diane Arbus

The boy is not a freak. In front of Arbus’s camera, through her eye, he has been made strange, unfamiliar, a figure of the uncanny. It’s what Arbus shoots for: to make people unfamiliar, unsettled even in their ordinary settings. The cloak of personality drops, and somehow the character behind the pose is revealed.

Everyone hides what they don’t want others to know about them. Arbus shot to uncover this all-too-human vulnerability in ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ subjects. Her work shows that looking is never benign, never innocent. Her photographs fomented spectators’ projections. They might see disgust, contempt, mockery; they might fear what they see. What you see is also a reflection of your self, your psyche. Arbus won’t be forgiven for that.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 232 with the headline ‘Does He Know?’.

Main image: Diane Arbus, Triplets in their bedroom, N.J. 1963Courtesy: © The Estate of Diane Arbus

Lynne Tillman is a writer. Her most recent title is Mothercare (Soft Skull Press, 2022). In 2025, Soft Skull Press is publishing a book of her selected stories titled Thrilled to Death.