There is a psychedelic beauty divulged from the layers of human vulnerability and untouched reality showcased in Diane Arbus’s photographs. 

The saying goes “A picture is worth a thousand words” (cointed by Henrik Ibsen, 1913). Although these photographs were taken a few decades ago, because of their black-and-white filter, they keep their timeless nature, no matter the era they are seen in. To understand this better, we can ask ourselves “What will a picture mean in 10 years from now?” And the answer is this: It’s not just a picture of that moment, of today, it’s something that’s a longer thing. It is a piece of a larger puzzle. Diane Arbus, like many other talented photographers, knows how to exploit the power of photography, or more precisely, the effect it has when it’s witnessed by people. 

 

Looking at her photographs is like opening a door to another reality. It’s like getting invited for some tea in a stranger’s home, that you would have never known if you simply chose to walk by. 

Her photographs are more than a shadow that passes by and stops at a scene. There’s a certain intimacy that can be attributed to them as the viewer feels engaged and connected. 

There is a mind-revealing beauty that emerges when we are able to accept that there is no such thing as “normal people”. In fact, we all have our differences, simple or complex; small, tall, young, old, the color of our skin, disabilities, life circumstances, and so on. Generally, this should be a well-acknowledged and accepted fact. Sadly, life comes with its complications and many of us forget that we don’t all take the same road to get to the same point. 

We are often blinded by the events of our daily life and in consequence, we pay less and less attention to what is happening in the world. The unedited reality goes through many layers and countlessly ends up censored or sugarcoated by lies that are meant to protect us. But this is what really makes us ignorant. In an over-saturated world, common sense is not that common anymore. We don’t need protection, we need the truth. 

Arbus’s pictures are a sort of wake-up call, a very important reminder that vulnerabilities are what makes us beautiful, precious and human. Many of the subjects of her photographs are the center of these problems. Undeniably, these people don’t want to be censored, as they have been until then. 

These pictures serve as their voice. They help connect us with the subjects, and show us that we are all bound together by an invisible string, in this long odyssey called life. 

For instance, “Dwarf lady on stage” taken in 1960, is a photograph that has a black border around it showing that the image was left uncropped. The MBAM states that these technical developments are often the sign of a change of direction in her practice: she is interested in new subjects never that were approached, or she might be trying a brand new style (MBAM).  

I think it’s honorable of her to show the viewer this moment in time. People who don’t fit in our “social norms” very well exist, and they have a place in our society. The woman in the photo is performing on stage, waving to the spectators with a big smile on her face. Her facial expression shows us that she is comfortable in her own skin and happy to be doing her act. It is important for the spectators to not only see her as a performer, but also acknowledge her outside of the spectacle, as a person. The same can be said about “Bearded Lady seated in a bra” taken in 1960. Although, she isn’t smiling and her hands are crossed, showing that she is more reserved. The fact that she let herself be photographed wearing just a bra tells us about her confidence and shows us that she doesn’t care about outside judgments. Her human side is reinforced by the nature of the things that she likes, seen in the posters on the back wall. There’s a man, a dog, a photo model, or maybe a daughter, and many more. 

Moreover, there’s also “Female impersonators in mirrors” taken in 1958 at a drag club. The subjects are aware that they are getting their picture taken while they are transforming themselves into performers, but they keep their natural fluidity and expression, making the scene look so intimate and authentic. They are sharing a piece of themselves with the world, their personal and sexual identity. 

Furthermore, “The couple in their living room hugging”  taken in 1971, shows a dwarf woman, and a tall man being happily in love. It appears that love has no boundaries, and is based on the connection of the soul, rather than giving much importance to the physical aspect. While this picture is an example of a marginalized couple, others could apply it to their daily lives. All of us have insecurities and wish that we could be different in one way or another, but this picture proves that we deserve to be loved for what we truly are. 

 

On top of creating a connection with the marginalized subjects of her photographs, Diane Arbus also photographs other events that people choose to turn a blind eye to. For example, she took pictures of multiple sets, like a murder, child rape and a sinister representation of royals, at the “Horror Show” at the wax museum in Coney Island. 

A more subtle example that shows reality nonetheless is “Two boys smoking in Central Park”. As the title says, two young boys smoke cigarettes, who look like they couldn’t be more than 14 years old. One of them is carrying a lunch bag while the other one has a Coca Cola bottle in his hand. Since one has the food and the other one has a drink, they will probably end up sharing. They certainly know each other for some time. My personal feelings tell me that they are good friends, the ones that have each other’s back. At the moment of the picture, they are both smoking, and they look very careless. They seem to be more preoccupied with their problems, than the photographer standing in front of them. During that time, cigarettes were a very widely accepted thing, according to Population Reference Bureau, and although the descent has been rocky, the number of teens smoking has decreased, but not fast enough (Population Reference Bureau). Indeed, old habits die hard. If people stop one thing, they’ll switch to another to suit their needs. According to National Institutes of Health: “America’s teens report a dramatic increase in their use of vaping devices in just a single year, with 37.3 percent of 12th graders reporting “any vaping” in the past 12 months, compared to just 27.8 percent in 2017.” (National Institutes of Health. U.S.). Arbus’ photograph which was taken in 1963, shows that the issue remains just as prevalent today, as it was back then. 

Another example of that is her “Sleeping monkey in a cage” photograph made in 1958, NYC. No matter how many times I see photographs like this, the feeling remains just as gut-wrenching. There is no description under her picture, but I believe that there is no need for one. We can see a very sad and skinny monkey, laying behind some metal bars. The blur from the top side of the image, makes the picture even more foggy, leaving room for interpretation. By not stating one particular situation, this picture covers all the horrible scenarios that this monkey finds itself in. Is it there for circus purposes? Or perhaps animal testing? Or even for clothing purposes? Maybe it’s there for animal trade? Why is it even there to begin with, and is this correct? 

I once again make reference to the quote I stated at the beginning “A picture is worth a thousand words” (cointed by Henrik Ibsen, 1913). This is testing our morals, by making us think. It is thought-provoking and doesn’t give us the chance to be indifferent. This picture is not only about this single monkey. This little animal tells the stories of all species across the planet that might be going through the same unjust treatments as it is.

PETA, states that “Each year, more than 110 million animals—including mice, rats, frogs, dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, monkeys, fish, and birds—are killed in the U.S. alone” and that hundreds of millions of animals are abused each year (PETA). 

 

In conclusion, I feel like the words “psychedelic beauty” used in my first sentence, being the thesis, are appropriate. The definition of psychedelics is: a subclass of hallucinogenic drugs whose primary effect is to trigger non-ordinary states of consciousness and alter perception by putting the user in a mind-revealing, meditative state (Alcohol and Drug Foundation).

Indeed, Diane Arbus’s photographs are the voice of the people and existing realities that have been silenced. They open the eye of the viewer and make them aware that there is more to something than what’s on the exterior. In order to see the truth, one must scratch more than the surface, and not enclose themselves to the often-limited sight around them.