In a modern world that champions the marginalised like never before, it’s inspiring to look back at a photographer like Diane Arbus who worked so hard to do this sixty years ago.
Despite her untimely death at 48, Arbus continues to inspire social commentators and photographers with her moving and powerful imagery.
The Arbus method
Heavily influenced by the black and white portraiture of, among others, Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus had a magical ability to put people at ease and make them feel respected – especially those who were used to being mocked. She shot exclusively in black and white and always wanted her subjects to know that they were being photographed so that they would feel seen and acknowledged.
This openness gave her access to subjects who might otherwise have shunned the camera – those on the fringes of society because they were different. She thought that a fair society was only possible if everybody was equally represented. By photographing those that the media deemed ‘ugly’, she felt that she could normalise and remove the fear of the different.
What you can learn from Diane
Even though Diane worked in a different age and with the kind of equipment that we rarely see today - a twin-lens reflex Rolleiflex medium format camera - there’s plenty we can learn from her.
Like so many master portrait and documentary photographers, Diane was unafraid of being close to people and never felt like she was better than them. Despite her privileged background (her family owned a Fifth Avenue department store), she was completely comfortable around the people that most of society seemed to be afraid of.
This is something you can cultivate too. Developing a genuine interest in your subjects makes them much more likely to open up and reveal their true nature, and that’s the path to great images.
Try not to get bogged down in your gear – pick a simple style and master it because it’s how you interact and engage with your subjects that makes the photograph.
If you’ve been following along with our series on the master photographers, you’ll have noticed that this ability to be interested in people comes up time and time again, and that’s the key skill we want you to take home from all of our articles on people photography.
So don’t be afraid to make real connections with the people you shoot because if you do, you too might end up creating endearing works of art like the wonderful Diane Arbus.
11 February, 2021