When I was eleven or twelve years old, someone gave me a copy of Matthew Brady’s photographs of the civil war. They were absolutely fascinating–grotesque and riveting all at once. It seemed quite profound to me that I could look so intently at the dead–and not just those who actually were dead, but all of those men staring back at the camera, making a connection across time with those who looked back. I read somewhere about aboriginal peoples refusing to allow their pictures to be taken for fear that one’s image was indelibly connected to one’s soul, and one’s soul would be consumed by the camera. Captured, as it were. What an absolutely wonderful notion. And why not? It could be argued that the most beautiful among us are, in fact, captured by cameras, by mirrors, seduced by their own beauty.
The next photographer to catch my attention was Diane Arbus. Her work is very much straight on photography. It’s in black and white, although I’m surprised that Ms. Arubs did not work in color, because her subjects were all about color. Interestingly, she chose to work within a square frame, using a medium format camera. Composing inside a square is much harder than composing within a rectangle. It’s simply more forgiving. There is less space to work with, and composition has got to be exacting for the image to be successful. While Ms. Arbus’ photographs were presented in such a straight-forward style, the images themselves were anything but ordinary. Dwarfs, giants, mentally challenged . . . the grotesque was what she chose to portray. To see an image of her, a delicately beautiful woman, you have to wonder what had happened in her life to draw her to this sordid fascination.
Norman Mailer was quoted in 1971, the year that Ms. Arbus took her own life, as saying “Giving a camera to Diane Arbus is like putting a live grenade in the hands of a child.” Had Norman seen this photograph?
The images that spoke directly to me are the children playing on the grounds of an institution:
And especially this picture:
Arbus experienced “depressive episodes” during her life similar to those experienced by her mother, and the episodes may have been worsened by symptoms of hepatitis Arbus wrote in 1968 “I go up and down a lot”, and her ex-husband noted that she had “violent changes of mood.” On July 26, 1971, while living at Westbeth Artists Community in New York City, Arbus took her own life by ingesting barbiturates and slashing her wrists with a razor. Marvin Israel found her body in the bathtub two days later; she was 48 years old. (Taken from the Wikipedia Website)