As we wave goodbye to Halloween, let’s take a minute to mediate on the innately striking work of Diane Arbus and her unbiased approach to documenting not just the spookier side of humanity, but even more so, the masks or costumes we present to the world as a species, as human beings, as ourselves . . . year-round.
Now, when I use the word “unbiased” here I am not suggesting Arbus’s eye is roaming and invisible. Quite the contrary. Her eye is always distinctly there: focused, from one frame to the next. This “unbiased” quality has more to do with her indiscriminate examination of each subject in the same oddly intimate and unflinching way– regardless of class, age, gender, sexual preference, or race. In other words, a child with a toy hand grenade in the park looks equally as strange as the a woman lounging next to a toy poodle or a handful of residents dressed up on Halloween at a home for the mentally retarded. No one person, group, or act is more privileged. No one is all the more beautiful. We are all playing dress-up as far as identity and image is concerned.
By seeking out each individual’s innate desire to present him or herself and critically or creatively twisting that into her own perception of costume in each person’s presentation, Arbus became not just a photographer, but an alchemist, shifting our ideas of self, reality, and personal intention. Whether you are a part of celebrity culture or a more marginalized society spread out along the fringe, Arbus’s certain way of looking did not glorify one way of living over the other.
Perhaps Hilton Als explains this concept best in a New Yorker article:
“Above all, Arbus knew what this exchange meant—that is, the dialogue between the portraitist and her subjects, their reality and her imagination. ‘I work from awkwardness,’ she said. ‘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.’ That arrangement is about humility: you don’t change the subject, the subject changes you. Arbus’s pictures are characterized by a certain reverential silence; she listens as her subjects explain something of themselves. Listening and watching the slide show, one arranges one’s body not so much to fit the sound of Arbus’s language as to open oneself up to her enthusiasm for this or that image, and for the beautiful inscrutableness that comes with making anything at all. Indeed, one reason for Arbus’s continued controversy as an artist may have something to do with what she demands of the viewer: that they change their shape—their socially acceptable self—in order to meet her totemic drag kings and queens, nudists, soothsayers, and so on.”
So, in the vein of Arbus’s legacy, let’s toast our glasses in November to our own shape shifting beyond trick or treating– to these twistings in life, through the looking glass or lens, into the art of everyday presentation or performance, beyond this year and far into the next.