just finished reading "Diane Arbus" a biography by Patricia Bosworth written in 1984. Picked it up at a used book store for USD 1.00. Actually I quite enjoyed the read.
The book was written as a full-scale biography and there were no images from Arbus's work... Some family snaps and photos of key individuals in her life such as Allan Arbus, Alex Eliot, Marvin Israel, and Lisette Model.
I think one has to remember the time that Diane Arbus was taking her photos... it was the time of Robert Frank and Weegee (Arthur Fellig). She was using Speed Graphic, Leica, Rolleiflex, Mamiya C33 with flash... and it seems that she liked working with 120 format and flash... to get more detail and to isolate (with flash) the individual... obviously portraits were her thing and she was quite active in the darkroom (printing) as well.
Bosworth wrote from a non-professional photographer perspective and I think that focus on the individual rather than the body of work was quite revealing. I could not help but think of Don McCullin's reaction later in life when he kind of "reached his limit".
As an individual, Arbus was juggling a lot with her personal history, the sexual freedom of the 50s and 60s, and the intense nature of her approach... Here was someone who could be very very aggressive, based on the accounts from her subjects
... do anything to get the photo... I got the feeling that compared to Arbus, with a camera in her hands, the current crop of agressive flash wielding street photographers (e.g. someone like Bruce Gilden) would be considered light
weight. Without camera (which didn't happen too often) a different, but still intense, individual...
After finishing the book I took a look at some of her photos online, the twins, the nudist colony, the Coney Island portraits... I think it's a disservice to look at her work without understanding a bit of the times and where she was coming from. There is no doubt that she broke a lot of ground (as did others). She did pose individuals, sometimes reshooting the same individual over years... not satisfied until she could break thru the mask - and only then move on... I kind of like the response she gave when 'asked if she deliberately distorted':
"The process of photography is itself a bit of a distortion... but I'm not interested in distortion... you have to fuss with what you want and what the camera wants... the camera is so cold. I try to be as good as I can to make things even... the poetry, the irony, the fantasy, it's all built in.
To say the least, a wonderfully complicated individual in very interesting times.
Arbus was part of a photo exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in March 1967 titled "New Documents". It seems that there was a lot of reaction to her portraits as being "strange, ugly, distorted..." and there is the story of "the man and wife who came in [to the exhibit] and the husband said, 'This is great. I feel as if I know all these people,' and the wife said, 'You do?'"
The above opinions and views are my own