Diane Arbus & Classic Cameras

Discussion in 'Classic Manual Cameras' started by jorn ake, Mar 16, 2005.

  1. I just spent the day looking through the Diane Arbus exhibit at the
    Met, and I think that the inclusion of all her notes and some of her
    equipment is one of the best things I have seen in a posthumous
    retrospective. I saw a show of Lartigue's work in Paris - work which
    was all about what camera he had at what point in his life - and there
    wasn't a single camera to be found. Quite an ommission I think,
    especially for a photographer. Granted formalist art critics (which
    Peter Schejldahl of the New Yorker seems to be) feel that one should
    only look at the work and not at the artist or the process, I think
    that if you are trying to improve as photographer, seeing how an image
    got made is key. Equipment is part of that.

    For example:

    Arbus seems to have first worked with a meterless Nikon F, but looking
    at the contact sheets provided, she shot nearly entire rolls with
    every shot in portrait orientation. Landscape is pretty well the
    default orientation, so I can only guess from the number of portrait
    orientation shots and prints that Arbus "saw" something
    compositionally that led her to make that choice - something I am
    guessing that had something to do with shooting people (who tend to be
    vertical unless sleeping), but might (might) have also had to do with
    isolating the subject to control the image's psychological impact.

    She next worked with a Rolleiflex, which she writes took her a year to
    switch to after using the Nikon. What's most interesting to me though
    is that she used a Rollei Wide, not the standard Rollei. That may be
    why many of her photos have strangely proportioned people - I mean was
    the head on that photo, Boy with Toy Hand Grenade, really that big or
    was it the wide angle lens working its magic? Looks like the latter.
    It also explains perhaps how/why she got so close to some of her
    subjects, shots that look much too close (to me) for a standard Rollei

    Later still she starts using a Mamiya C33 with a 55mm, 80mm and 135mm
    lens. Again, this helps (me) make sense of some of her shots, given
    what the subjects look like in their surroundings, where she must have
    been standing in relation to them, how much depth of field is in the
    photograph and the changes in some of the portraiture (which begins to
    feel less intimate, less sweaty, perhaps merely because she did not
    have to stand so close, given the 135mm lens instead of the Rollei
    Wide's lens.)

    And finally she borrows a new Pentax 6x7, which she admits in writing
    to "lust after." We all know that language here. Further, she says
    that she feels using the 6x7 with its eye-level finder and large
    negative size will be the best of both worlds - a medium format Nikon
    - allowing her to "make pictures more narrative and temporal, less
    fixed and single and complete and isolated." What a great
    advertizement for a 6x7! This statement leads me to guess that perhaps
    the whole square thing (almost an Arbus trademark) was incidental to
    image quality - using a TLR in order to use medium format film and get
    a larger negative, the square only being a secondary result as an
    aesthetic tool (perhaps a duh-moment for me, but sometimes I am slow.)

    In a sense, it sounds to me from reading her notes that she was aware
    her photographs might have been over-taken by a Diane Arbus "Look"
    rather than progressing in a way that might challenge the facility she
    had developed in creating that look over the course of her career.

    Who knows? She killed herself. I have never accepted the cult thing
    myself. All I know is that I like her photography and see it as a
    continuation of the sort of work that August Sander did with his
    People of the Twentieth Century.

    Sure she posed and collaborated with her subjects, but so did Sander.
    Sure she took a lot of photographs of freaks, but looking through the
    photographs in this show, the people who are typically freaks in our
    society are no more (and perhaps are less) freakish that the Waspy
    socialites and hat ladies she shot in between.

    Just like Sander, I think Arbus' photographs show a sense that the
    absurdities of society create a nut house the same size as the world,
    and that some people got lost while others live on, and none of this
    makes a whole lot of sense.
  2. Very well said Jorn. I'm a fan of Arbus' work and have read all the baloney about her photos being "easy" to take due to the subject matter. Your last sentence sums up her work (and the way many people look at the world) perfectly. Bravo.
  3. I'm not comparing myself to Diane Arbus but I also take probably 90% of my photos in portrait orientation. I've always found 35mm cameras a nuisance in that they all are landscape oriented. One of the cameras I particularly like is my Kiev 645 since it is vertical format. Its also real nice to get 16 shots on a roll instead of 12.
  4. I saw the Arbus exibit which is still at the Scottdale (Arizona) Art museum. I think many of her photos are great, but the boy with the toy grenade is my favorite, Its hard to tell if he is suffering from excitement,frustration ,or just nuts. It's a very good exibit.
  5. I came away from one of her shows feeling that she liked and appreciated her subjects, perhaps even identified with them. Among the funniest and freakiest looking pair were Susan Sonntag and her son, who I believe were friends of hers.

    What year did the Pentax 6x7 come out?
  6. The contact sheet of the boy with the grenade makes it clear that he was being silly for the camera in that one shot. I believe that the contact sheet for that is in the show.
  7. see, diane arbus couldn't have been a great photographer if she lusted after a camera.
    ;) the pentax came out in 1969.
  8. Wow. I have a Pentax 6x7...the idea of carrying around for street photography would
    mean that I would have to go to the gym and start working out...that is more than a
    big Nikon F.
  9. Thanks Gene. I am actually working on this essay writing thing, trying to make something of myself. A table lamp. I think I would make a nice table lamp.

    Yeah, Arbus certainly wasn't a wimp when it came to carrying cameras around. There is a photo of her working in Washington Square Park with the Mamiya around her neck with a strobe bolted on, plus a gi-normous (bigger that giant and enormous) camera bag. What's more - she is standing on tiptoe to get the composition she wants. She was not a large person.

    So get thee to thy Pentax 6x7 and streetwards goeth thou without complaint!
  10. Thanks to a heads-up from Michael Ging I was able to visit the show in Scottsdale this week featuring many photos by Arbus. There were works by many of the giants of XX-Century photography including Robert Frank, August Sander and Wegee. I thought Frank's pictures were the most conventionally beautiful in terms of contast and tonalities, but Arbus's images were the most substantial and arresting in the show by far.<br>&nbsp; &nbsp; It was never necessary to read the captions to recognize the Arbus style even though the pictures are cropped tightly around the subjects and the lighting is often rather flat. Each of the images seems to penetrate to the core elements of the subject's personality and life experience. It is also remarkable, as I think was alluded to in the accompanying text, that Arbus was able to meaningfully examine the essential characteristics of our society through portrayals of society's outliers.
  11. Yeah exactly - alienation as the universal human emotion.

    That Scottsdale museum is one of the best small museums in the country. They have that great James Turrell skyspace that is in a little courtyard just off the main entrance. Strange enough, one of the other really good small museums is over at ASU - the ASU Art Museum in its great Antoine Predock building that puts the museum mainly underground.

    I lived in Phoenix 3 years ago and just was there for a conference last weekend. Nice flowers in the desert, eh? Man oh man I love that desert.
  12. Jorn,

    Thanks for the great review...

    Unfortunately I cannot see the show but I do love Arbus.

    Thanks again.
  13. "Boy with Hand Grenade" is one of my favorite photos. Strange and yet perfectly appropiate at the same time. I don't doubt that there's a little bit of her in that boys expression. Wonderful work, a true artist.

    Thank you for sharing this!
  14. When you say she used a wide rollei lens, would she have bought this seperate to the Rolleiflex and where could I get one?
  15. Yes. A "Rollei Wide" is a separate TLR camera, with a fixed wide angle lens.<br>Best place to look for one is eBay. Expect to have to pay a lot of money.

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