Today, we bring you yet another set of valuable lessons from a well-known photography master, Diane Arbus. Although she was labeled as a controversial photographer during her time, there are many notable lessons that we can all learn from the renowned American street photographer.
While her works may not be as well-received during her time compared to recent decades, American street photographer Diane Arbus nevertheless left the photography world with many noteworthy photographs. Instead of capturing the usual scenes and people of interest out in the streets, Arbus chose what must be the most peculiar subjects at the time: “deviant and marginal people.”
Arbus once told a friend that she was afraid of being known simply as the “photographer of freaks.” However, as many of us know today, it was her chosen subjects that led to her popularity. Her striking photographs of the strange, the unusual, and the marginalized has become some of the most notable in the history of photography for their uniqueness, if not for the composition itself.
Why such eccentric subjects? Arbus explains:
“Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot….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.”
Now, it’s time for us to imagine ourselves in the photography master’s class (after all, she taught photography in the 1960s) and take in some of her words of wisdom:
On taking photos
I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them.
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.
You see someone on the street, and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw.
I don’t know what good composition is…. Sometimes for me composition has to do with a certain brightness or a certain coming to restness and other times it has to do with funny mistakes. There’s a kind of rightness and wrongness and sometimes I like rightness and sometimes I like wrongness.
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…
On portraits and photographs
A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.
For me the subject of the picture is always more important than the picture. And more complicated. I do have a feel for the print but I don’t have a holy feeling for it. .
I never have taken a picture I’ve intended. They’re always better or worse.
Sometimes I can see a photograph or a painting, I see it and I think, That’s not the way it is. I don’t mean a feeling of, I don’t like it. I mean the feeling that this is fantastic, but there’s something wrong. I guess it’s my own sense of what a fact is. Something will come up in me very strongly of No, a terrific No. It’s a totally private feeling I get of how different it really is.
One thing that struck me very early is that you don’t put into a photograph what’s going to come out. Or, vice versa, what comes out is not what you put in.
On photography itself
It’s always seemed to me that photography tends to deal with facts whereas film tends to deal with fiction.
Photography was a licence to go whenever I wanted and to do what I wanted to do.
I always thought of photography as a naughty thing to do – that was one of my favorite things about it, and when I first did it, I felt very perverse.
The more specific you are, the more general it’ll be.
What moves me about…what’s called technique…is that it comes from some mysterious deep place. I mean it can have something to do with the paper and the developer and all that stuff, but it comes mostly from some very deep choices somebody has made that take a long time and keep haunting them.
Looking for more words of inspiration and wisdom from our photography masters? Why don’t you check out all Lessons from Photography Masters articles so far!