Wednesday, August 29, 2012


Several informed critics have pointed out the un-obvious difference between the candid portraits made by Diane Arbus in the 1960s (as above) and the undeniably similar work made earlier in the century by her photography teacher, Lisette Model. What that un-obvious difference involved was cropping (or not cropping).

Arbus killed herself in 1971. She subsequently became so famous-beyond-famous that Model (who lived until 1983 but never became particularly famous on her own) gained a certain measure of reflected fame as the mentor and role-model of the departed genius.

Both Model and Arbus tended to confront their subjects (or victims, as some would say) face-on, crowding them against  the frame-edges and pushing them forward toward the viewer. Model said she envisioned her subjects exploding from the picture altogether.

Yet she also described her practice of standing at a safe, prudent, socially acceptable distance from the strangers she was shooting. Only later – in the darkroom – did she achieve the claustrophobic intimacy she wanted, by a process of radical cropping. Arbus, more of a purist in matters of technique, was reluctant to crop. Instead, she achieved the Model effect in the simplest possible manner – by stepping closer, by literally entering the personal space of strangers under scrutiny (a space the upper-class Vienna-bred Model could not seriously conceive of violating). 

Immediately above, Arbus at work (photographed by Garry Winogrand in 1969 at a Central Park "Love-In").

Arbus at work (photographed by William Gedney in 1968 at a bodybuilding competition).

Arbus in student days (photographed by Allan Arbus in 1949 while staring into the future).