Diane Arbus’s images defied stereotypes

How much power can an artist usurp? I thought about it last holiday season when friends wanted to take me to the movies Rimini by director Ulrich Seidl. I doubted. Rimini is, as the reviews learned, about Richie Bravo, a depressed schlager singer who leads a dissolute and lost life in the Italian seaside resort of the same name. Officially, he makes his money by performing in dilapidated glamor halls frequented by an ever-shrinking group of mainly elderly women. But he makes a living mainly from paid sex with the same women – with whom you suspect that sex is primarily a means of being seen. Sometimes Richie visits his father in Austria, who lives in a deserted nursing home and occasionally spontaneously starts singing Nazi songs.

Rimini sounded like Seidl was a little too eager to tick off the whole bingo card in the heterosexual camp: hit songs, dilapidated seaside resorts, Austria, dying neon lights, sad sex – a world where the average Riminithe viewer rarely or never has anything to do with it, but quite laughingly looks at the game with light joy.

But I also thought of Diane Arbus.

This year marks exactly one hundred years since Arbus was born, and she is still considered one of the most famous photographers of all time. At the same time, her work is also controversial, partly because it is largely based on Rimini-mechanism.

Arbus’ breakthrough came in 1972, a year after her self-imposed death, when MoMA in New York devoted a major solo to her work. Rarely has a photo exhibition been so divisive: Arbus’s intimate portraits, in black and white, of people on the fringes of society, giants, dwarfs, transvestites, people in decline or caught in a vulnerable moment, at the time (also by Arbus himself ) ) called ‘freaks’ without any embarrassment, provoked violent reactions.

Also read: A shady purveyor of unfulfilled dreams in ‘Rimini’

Sometimes they were positive: New York Timesthe critic Hilton Kramer found Arbus’ exhibition ‘an artistic and a human triumph’. He wrote: “Sooner or later […] she [Arbus] completely wins us over, not only for her pictures, but for her people, because she has clearly come to feel something like love for them herself.” Susan Sontag, then one of America’s most authoritative cultural critics, was diametrically opposed: “Arbus’s work shows people who are pathetic, pitiable and repulsive, but it does not evoke any compassionate feelings.”

Partly because of these high emotions, the exhibition became an unprecedented success: the queues were long around the corner, and the Arbus exhibition became the most visited exhibition in MoMA’s history up to that time.


through Rimini I thought back to why Arbus’s images strike me again and again with an uneasy mixture of fascination and revulsion: her work balances flawlessly on the line between voyeurism and compassion. Almost every Arbus image features people who are somehow outside the mainstream – a little boy making a contorted face while playing with a plastic hand grenade, a woman in a fur coat barely holding back tears , two girls who look alike. almost turn into dolls. Therefore, one can only suspect that it is precisely this ‘being different’ that is the reason why Arbus wanted to record them.

But this is where it gets tricky: the moment the photographer takes ‘being different’ as a characteristic, while he or she also has the power to set the standard, he or she quickly risks being discreetly (or not) ridiculed – which becomes only enhanced by the fact that at first glance the images actually appeal to the viewer to recognize the ‘deviation’. It can quickly lead to awkward situations: photographer and viewer bond over laughing at the person in the picture – haha, look, someone who doesn’t live up to our standards.

Photographers such as Martin Parr and Bruce Gilden displayed their superiority under the guise of ‘looking good’

You saw this mechanism a lot about twenty years ago: photographers like Martin Parr and Roger Ballen and Bruce Gilden (hell, all white men) who, under the guise of ‘looking good’, mainly aired their own superiority: pictures of fat, eating people on the beach, of men with crooked faces and protruding ears, of badly deformed heads with a ridiculous multitude of wrinkles. It was power photography where you might sometimes blame Parr because his work represents a deep English class consciousness. The rest was basically just bullying. These men were the photographic equivalent of the hosts and editors who say that making a good talk show is war.

Meanwhile, these photographers and their aficionados usually tolerated such photographs, claiming that they revealed people and situations that had not been considered ‘photo-worthy’ until then – almost as a form of liberation, a form of democracy and inclusion . In doing so, they only overlooked something: that good photography in this genre (such as Arbus, for example) is not limited to the one characteristic, to the stereotype, but shows the ‘freak’ as an individual, as a person with many more characteristics than being a freak. As a result, voyeurism can give way to layering and compassion.

However, it only works if the photographer is willing to look beyond the first impression. Then a photo does exactly the opposite: it nudges the viewer and says: look, that person looks like that, but look: it’s all there too! Stereotype photographers make the world smaller, the Arbus-likes make it bigger.

But there is more. What makes Arbus’s own oeuvre even more intriguing is that compassion doesn’t seem to be her end in itself. Arbus is not a savior, not a social worker who wraps her ‘freaks’ in soft bright and warm colors and gentle poses – she is often tough, as tough as you would deal with ‘normal’ people, so tough even that you wondering and occasionally, as Sontag suggests, doubting that she is not a bully. But by looking for the sharp edge, she draws the viewer into her world. She baits you with your own dubious prejudices, knowingly taking the risk that the viewer will get stuck in the stereotype, fall off, get mad. But she also ensures that if you are moved and then really immerse yourself in her models, the experience is much richer and more complex than with stereotypical photographers.


“A photograph must be specific”, Arbus himself once remarked. By that she meant that a good photo shows the person’s unique, distinctive power, but to show that, you must first recognize your model’s real distinctiveness. Being different. The unique. That’s exactly what she did: Arbus used her power as a photographer to pry away existing worldviews and in that way arouse compassion for fellow human beings that the viewer does not usually meet on a daily basis or is all too easily dismissed with a stereotype. But that compassion arises by challenging the viewer.

In that respect, a lot has changed in (portrait) photography. Contemporary young portraitists are very aware of the various liberation movements that have rightly gained influence in recent years. That everyone is equal – including the photographer and his model. As a result, photographers want to get rid of their manipulative power, but because that is never quite possible, they remarkably often choose to put their models on a pedestal, to make them beautiful, to lift them up – soft light, beautiful colors, liquid forms. The strange thing is that once again they subordinate the individuality of the models to an ideology – only now an ideology of liberation and elevation.

As mentioned, there’s nothing wrong with that from a social point of view, but it often produces remarkably interchangeable photos: photos in which the model herself hopefully feels uplifted for a while (which is also worth something), but which the viewer mainly sees as right boring, semi-glam photos: what’s interesting about photos that aim to make everyone meet the same standard? Who subordinates human individuality to a generic aesthetic and ideological norm? Especially in photography, you don’t want the creators to twist the model into a mold of likeness, but, as Arbus says, to challenge the viewer by showing people you didn’t know yet, not like that.

Large deviations, such as with Arbus, are not necessary at all, a genuinely interested look at the uniqueness of each person is enough. But for that, as a photographer or artist, you have to dare to let go of the pursuit of equality. To make it come back even harder.

And it works. When I finally Rimini when I saw it, I was genuinely touched. Director Seidl did everything right simply by elevating Richie Bravo, a perfectly irritating cliche character on paper, far above the stereotype. In the first twenty minutes of the film, Seidl hits you as a spectator with your own prejudices, only to unfold a man full of fear and doubt who, despite his sealskin coat and his seductress image, can barely cope with life. And Rimini turned out to be a subtle and multi-faceted film where you end up with an enriched, gentler view of your fellow man. Arbus would surely have been proud.

Diane Arbus: At the end of last year, David Zwirner Gallery and Fraenkel Gallery in New York staged a complete revival of Arbus’s MoMA exhibition with all 113 photos: davidzwirner.com

Leave a Comment