Diane Arbus and the Snapshot

Both the bane and the benefit of photography in the Modern Age is camera technology that enables the novice photographer to produce a convincing photographic representation without much training, artistic inclination, or investment expense. Currently, introductory cameras (point-and-shoot compacts, cell phone cameras, entry-level DSLRs, etc.) are so fully automated that almost anyone can pick one up and immediately make a decent picture. This fact implies that photography is not always as complicated as photographers make it seem. For individuals attempting to professionalize the activity of taking photographs, this represents a dilemma; how does one take advantage of streamlining technology, while at the same time, preserving the role of the operator as a necessary component? The answer, of course, has been for the professional photographer to point to the novice photographer’s images and call them “snapshots”, or images made crudely without regard for photographic conventions.

A “snapshot”.


Nonetheless, some photographers began to analyze the new visual syntax emerging from the growing flood of snapshot photos, and started to experiment with this new vocabulary in their own work. Snapshot photography ignored the classic rules of composition established by Western painting, to which the snapshooter was generally ignorant. This new visual phrasing emphasized unusual devices like cropping portions of a person or object out of the frame, bad, or unnatural lighting, motion blur, a diagonal horizon line, etc. Essentially, the snapshot photographer was unfettered by the photograph’s border and the traditions of compositional purity, choosing instead to chase after a single idea or subject with their lens at all costs to the resulting image. The photographer who could find a way to intentionally emphasize this syntax in an expressive way would be free to break with the rules of convention and embark immediately into new visual territory.

Art movements in painting, like Surrealism, Abstraction, Dadaism, began to slowly free the thinking of art-producing photographers, and by the 1950’s photography was ready to pursue alternative ideas unequivocally. Diane Arbus was one such photographer. Arbus’ background was in fashion photography (she worked alongside her husband, Alan Arbus, to produce images of women’s fashions for various print publications). Her work in this context represented a well established point-of-view about how images of this nature should look. Diane gradually began to pursue her true interest, which was the people who are seldom seen, and her goal in photographing them was to find a way to represent their “essence”.

“When you want to understand something you stand in front of it, alone, without help: all the past in the world is of no use.”(69)’ Arbus’ pursuit of her subjects often resulted in stand-offs with a stranger that she found engaging; just herself and the person with only her camera as a barrier. The photographs that she took drew from the snapshot vernacular in curious ways. For instance, the subject was often placed in the absolute center of the frame, the flash-bulb that she used illuminated the subject in a way that seemed unplanned, and possibly most interestingly, her subjects always appeared to not be “ready” for the shutter. Diane Arbus’ photographs essentially constitute an investigative search for the truth (the truth of her subjects’ essence), yet border heavily upon her interpretation of it.

Diane Arbus; A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y., 1970.

“I work from awkwardness….By that I mean if I stand in front of something instead of arranging it, I arrange myself…It’s important to make bad pictures- It’s the bad ones that have to do with what you’ve never done before…I’ll not risk my life but I’ll risk my reputation or my virtue- But I don’t have so much left. [laughs] Everyone suffers from the limitation of being only one person.”(248)”

‘ Jean-Paul Sartre; Nausea.
” Patricia Bosworth; Diane Arbus: A Biography; (quote is of Diane Arbus).

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