“I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them.”
– Diane Arbus
Exactly what does society consider beautiful? Does the amount of Instagram likes dictate what the perfect ass looks like? Does a face void of makeup still appeal to masses? Can the out-of-ordinary be considered beautiful or must beauty follow a norm? After centuries of beauty being mandated by evolving standards of perfection, one photographer is finally showing the beauty of imperfection. While most will reflect on physicality perfection as the answer to ‘what’s beautiful?’, photographer Diane Arbus believes that capturing the truth is what defines beauty.
Arbus had an engrained attraction to photographing marginalized groups such as transgender people and the mentally ill who, by societal standards, were deemed ugly and undesirable. Stigmas like these create a wall confining the unwanted sights of these “social outcasts” from the masses, therefore branding them as uncommon and abnormal. While we see plenty of thin, high cheek-boned models in the photography world, Arbus pioneered not only the photographic capture of these unique subjects, but also conveyed her appreciation of the outcast crowd.
Some photographers promote and enable the ages old and diluted idea of beauty through their work for mass appeal and we even photograph ourselves to depict an image of absolute perfection. The hashtag #nomakeup still counts if you’re only using mascara, eyebrow liner, concealer and an Instagram filter, right? Photography once revolved around expression and the need to provoke thoughts and ask question, but today, that aspect seems to be dwindling as we continue to desperately dodge the implication of being imperfect.
As Diane Arbus boldly explored in her photography back in the 1960’s, there is beauty in those who are not perfect, can you see it?
THE PIONEER THAT DEFIED THE STANDARDS
Arbus started her career in fashion magazines such as Glamour and Vogue, only to wind up uninterested in its phony and embellished nature, as she saw it. After setting sights on the raw side of photography, she engulfed herself in capturing what some may call the “freaks of nature.” including dwarfs, giants, transgender people, circus performers, and the mentally ill. Beyond her signature style of illuminating black and white portraits, exploring this uncommon subject realm gave her work notable contrast from many other photographers of her time.
The theme of imperfection is woven throughout Arbus’ work making it remarkable and free from pretension. It suggests either a humanist undertone or simply a strong personal intrigue for her subject’s uniqueness. Her portraits force an awkward intimacy to what people consider “disturbing”, ultimately confronting those inadequacies by turning them into icons of power and beauty. Take Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, NYC, 1962, which is easily one of Arbus’ most recognized photographs. This child, in the midst of making such a demented expression and gesture, conveys the feeling of ‘rebel’ with a side of ‘punk’. But the true beauty is the emphasis on the strength behind his rage.
Her audience tended to be open-minded, considering the fact that the nature of her photos were so blunt. Being a time of social awareness, these insightful spectators weren’t an oddity in the 1960s. Though Arbus’ work was praised in an era with immense consciousness, today it may be judged and questioned. This is a direct result of our desensitized generation and their view on what’s unflattering to their excessive beauty standards.
Arbus had certain criteria her subjects needed to meet. She may have known what she wanted to shoot, but there was an uncertainty regarding who would fulfill that desire. Once that mystery was solved and the photo was captured, it was both genuine and genius, making her a hard act to follow. Her famous image of identical twins exemplifies how Arbus wasn’t just a happenstance street photographer. Titled Identical twins, Roselle, NJ, 1967, the subjects were photographed at a Christmas party for twins and triplets in New Jersey. While Arbus’ work can be photojournalistic by nature, there was always the foresight to put herself in the right place for the opportunity.
Although, today’s beauty standards may still be skyrocketing past the foundations Arbus built for image makers and humanitarians alike, her work helped open people’s minds to see that beauty isn’t always what’s on the inside of fashion magazines. It helped other photographers understand that opening your mind to the beauty of the world with all of its shortcomings, imperfections, and faults is a better starting point than any. Her message was read by aspiring renegade photographers as ‘Let yourself and your work burst with a liberal and even perverse attitude, break the beauty standard.’
REVIVE THE LOST ART
Have our current day creative practices been stunted by societal expectations? Today, the field of photography that Arbus embraced may as well be considered a “lost art”. Media platforms are mostly filled with primp and polished Barbie and Ken look alikes, leaving little room to appreciate the rawness of humans and all the imperfections that make us who we are. So how do we revive this lost art?
- Use Personal Work to Explore Beauty: In a generation ruled by technology, humanity has been lost somewhere. A desire for perfection among consumers has rapidly grown to be the norm and anything on the opposite spectrum might even be shamed. This may be unavoidable for paid work, but allow yourself to discover completely new approaches, break out of your comfort zones and approach new and unique subjects when it comes to personal work.
- Capture Truth, Not Fiction: To express truth, even the harsh truth, we need to be tougher and with a open mind of acceptance. The natural world is beautiful without being tweaked, dyed, and surgically modified. Consider how you can show someone’s truth through your photography and you might discover something more powerful than any super model could offer through a heavily retouched image.
- Do Your Part to Reset Society’s Perception: People may feel quite inadequate with themselves when they see skin-to-the-bone, tall, flawless models on every page they turn. As media delivers images of chiseled bodies, impeccably smooth skin and immaculate features we start to believe that this is how we should look and this is what our peers find attractive. It’s up to creators like yourself to deliver an alternative, both in opinion and in capturing what other symbols of beauty exist. Speak your mind in social media comments, state your opinions of beauty, capture it with your photography and contribute, even in a small way, a beauty revolution.
- Reconnect With Your Artistic Values: Photographers may think that they will be adored if they exclusively use up-to-beauty-standard models, but honestly that’s far from the truth. The commercial world is far to crowded with the “perfect specimen” many feel the genre is becoming repetitive. This direction of photography is so congested, making it easy for raw, realistic subject matter to get lost in the abyss. Take a risk by not following the norms and reconnecting with your own artistic values.
- Give Yourself the Opportunity and Make it Your Own: The competition is fierce, and a new field of photography is a must to showcase unique creators like Diane Arbus. She had been noticed for what set her apart. So exactly what course of action is needed to follow in Arbus’ footsteps? For starters, give yourself the opportunity to shoot new subjects by putting yourself in new places and situations that can facilitate that. Arbus was intrigued with the idea of a Christmas Party for twins and triplets, and the resulting image is one of her most well known. Who else would have thought that would be an interesting story to tell? Not many, and that is what set Arbus apart.
We can no longer let the population’s hypersensitive characteristic define our photography culture, because walls need to be broken and feathers need to be ruffled to make true art, well….true again.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2018 Issue of Resource Magazine. You can buy the whole issue HERE.