Arbus and Adams

Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot,” she wrote. “It was one of the first things I photographed and it had a terrific kind of excitement for me. I just used to adore them. I still do adore some of them. I don’t quite mean they’re my best friends but they made me feel a mixture of shame and awe. There’s a quality of legend about freaks. Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”  –Diane Arbus

Shelby Lee Adams and Diane Arbus are two photographers who inspire me. There are many similarities in their style. They both shoot black-and-white portraits. Each of them shoot their subjects straight on, with deliberate eye contact. Both chose to document the lives of certain people on the fringes of society. Both are controversial.

For Adams, it is the folk of the “hollers” in Kentucky.

Arbus chose side-show freaks, transvestites, and nudists; all manner of people who did not fit into ordinary society.

Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus

The freaks aren’t who they once were. Tattooed man?

Ha! My child’s pediatric nurse has neck tattoos.

There is a fearsome quality of raw truth in both their work.  It balances so nicely with a certain sincerity and quite dignity. Their characters are exciting and dramatic, sometimes playful.

What really unites the two and makes their work special to me, is the uncanny intimacy they each inspire in their subjects. Their decisive moment is a shared experience.  They actually cultivate relationships with their subject. They go home with them. The most intimidating part of the process of photography is letting myself be as vulnerable as I want my subject to be.  I think that is their mojo. Mutual inspiration and total mastery.

That said, they are both so damn good they could probably inspire me with a picture of a ham sandwich.


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