Diane Arbus Could Tie Her Shoelaces, At Least

Photography is the province of the privileged. There is a wide discourse current on the Net which asks us if the proliferation of cameras is a good thing for photography. Aren't there too many people taking pictures? Hasn't the medium turned mediocre, with any impulse for creativity instantly gratified for a few hundred dollars and 12 megapixels? The people who make this argument tend to be the amateurs who once shot with actual 35 millimeter film, and they are aghast at the arrivistes passing them by with 3,000 shots a month. For a blue collar stiff like me, improperly self-educated, the situation is wonderful: anyone (almost) can shoot and document their own barrios and inner souls without suffering the interpretations and infatuations of the rich. And Diane Arbus, bless her soul, was rich, the daughter of a man who sold furs in Manhattan. Arbus studied under Lisette Model, who was so well-off she had a maid to tie her shoes; Lisette as a teenager still did not know how to tie shoelaces. No wonder it is tempting to say now that Arbus was mining the veins of poverty for her own profit as she stalked transvestites and circus freaks. She put in her sweat, after all (working with her husband on fashion shoots), and the equity allowed her to capture faces and places the rich rarely encountered. But what did she say about these people? What did she think? Does Diane Arbus still influence how we shoot? Or did she know, somehow, how shallow her lifetime of images would become? Was it that despair that drove her to suicide? Because in the end, what is a photographer left with, if the only impulse to shoot is to record what you see? Which photographer can you say has recorded what he or she felt about themselves? Well, actually, Arbus: How many times did she admit the freaks she shot were simply her mirrors? Her weird photographs actually seem to say more about her than they do about her subjects. That realization alone would be enough to drive her to the pills and overdose. It's tempting to read that possibility into her thoughts, but she left us with too little to mull. Like other well-heeled photographers who made their names by wandering among the poor, all Diane Arbus really left us was a bunch of arresting images with very little explanation for not only their existence but why she made them.