Diane Arbus: What She Knew Can Help You
“Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”
— Diane Arbus
by Thea Fiore-Bloom, Ph.D.
Diane Arbus made photos that can blow your brain cap right off.
The kind of pictures that get you thinking about the nature of society and the mystery of being.
If you’re a curious creative you may want to discover more about how Arbus approached art-making.
So here are 4 lesser-known things about Diane (pronounced Dee-Ann) Arbus and her art practice that I’ve found surprising and enlivening.
My hope is that her wisdom will inspire, affirm, and enrich your creative process too.
4 Things You Don’t Know About Diane Arbus
1. The Power of Diane Arbus’s Portraits Came From Permission
The power of Diane Arbus’s portraits came from permission.
For Arbus, the subject of her photo (the person) was more important than the finished print.
Arbus didn’t exploit her subjects.
She asked for permission a heck of a lot.
Arbus honored her photographic subjects where they were at. She rarely posed people or moved things around in a room where she was shooting.
“I work from awkwardness. By that I mean I don’t like to arrange things.
If I stand in front of something, instead of arranging it, I arrange myself.”
— Diane Arbus
Like the great photographer Graciela Iturbide, Arbus knew the ironic fact that photos taken with permission contain more secrets than those shot without.
And for Arbus, secrets were everything.
2. Arbus Was A Keeper of Secrets
Diane Arbus was a keeper of secrets.
She often had intimate discussions with her subjects while she was photographing them.
And it wasn’t a one-way street. She divulged her secrets to her subjects as well.
But one thing I love about Arbus is she never disclosed the personal stories of those she photographed to the curious media.
Arbus wisely chose to let her subjects and images speak for themselves. She understood the power and potency of a secret.
“A photograph is a secret about a secret.
The more it tells you the less you know.”
— Diane Arbus
The subjects of Arbus’ work still have the ability to jump off the paper and speak to you about love, death or difference.
But the more you think they tell you, the less you know.
Arbus was fond of mysteries, both modern and ancient.
3. Diane Arbus Loved Ancient Mysteries and Myth
Arbus’s creativity was fed by Dante, Homer, Shakespeare, and the ancient Greek myths.
“From Black [her teacher at Fieldston School] she learned that myths are not invented but inspired; that they come from the same source as dreams, below the level of conscious.” (Bosworth, 29.)
Arbus loved myth and was fascinated by what psychologist Carl Jung would call the ancient archetypes of the collective unconscious.
I think this why she photographed archetypal subjects like bodybuilders, flower girls, sword swallowers, cross-dressers as well as young lovers in the park. Those people were more real to her than young debutantes at society galas or rich golfers at exclusive country clubs.
“To Diane, the real world was always the fantasy.”
Can you relate?
Two of Arbus’ favorite books as an adult were:
But despite her forays into “fantasy” Arbus was no hopeless romantic.
She got it that art was hard work. And mistakes were an important part of that work.
4. Diane Arbus Believed It Was Important to Take Bad Pictures
Arbus was a fan of taking bad pictures.
Like many prolific artists, Arbus knew mistakes were gold.
(For more on the connection between honoring mistakes and being prolific, read my post on what all creatives can learn from ADHD artists and writers.)
“Some pictures are tentative forays without your even knowing it. They become methods.
It’s important to take bad pictures.
It’s the bad ones that have to do with what you’ve never done before.
They can make you recognize something you hadn’t seen in a way that will make you recognize it when you see it again.” — Diane Arbus
4 Diane Arbus-Inspired Take-Aways For Artists & Writers
- If you want to create work that transcends — ask permission.
- Closely guard the secrets of your models and muses.
- Don’t expect non-artists to be able to understand that myth and dreams are often more real than day-to-day reality. Keep working your way, anyway.
- Allow your latest creative mistake to be the secret passage that leads you to find a new way your art will grow wings.
“The thing that’s important to know is that you never know.
You’re always sort of feeling your way.” — Diane Arbus
Want to see more of Arbus’s work and hear more of her words?
This is a thoughtful, awesome, 29-minute documentary put together by Diane Arbus’ daughter Doon, the year after Diane Arbus took her own life in 1971.
Also, check out our Mostly Free Resources for Artist’s Page for more tools and ideas to help your art practice bloom.
What do you think?
Do you love Diane Arbus’s work?
Let me know in the comments below.