“A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.”
Diane Arbus’ quote about photography is exquisite. It’s simple and it’s paradoxical. She teases us with her description of how photographs communicate, and she tantalizes logic by suggesting that the more you learn about a photograph the less you will know.
Her work was mysterious. It was mysterious in a rarified sense that exists outside of the constraints of language. Her photographs were attached to nothing. No ideologies, dogma or religion. Those systems require words, and when one wraps a thing with that sort of language it takes on structure. Creativity can function within those structures but flourishes when it’s free. Diane was one who reclaimed the word mysterious in her work. Religions do not own this word.
Arbus nudges us. With simple words she points to the process. Creations need no creeds and imagination requires nothing larger than itself. Sometimes I’ve wondered if the liberation of art is the one of the most unsung contributions of modern civilization. When John Lennon wrote the words to his song Imagine, he understood. After all, it took an odd leap of imagination to suggest that above us is only sky.
There is a downside to this modern paradigm of art:
Fame and money.
In spite of the temptations, Arbus didn’t give away her secrets. The rest of us have to deal with it in our own way.
Diane Arbus committed suicide in 1971. During the ten years prior to that, she assembled a body of work that filled a niche so ravishingly that it inspires awe. She had no peer. Her portraits are raw, gripping, astonishing and completely unforgettable. She once said that her “favorite thing was to go where I’ve never been.” That was her work. Even her detractors will admit that her photographs succeeded at this. Perhaps her pictures represent a new form of totem, a courageous one with a direct gaze and no need for a disembodied spirit. For us it provides evidence for what an imagination looks like when it has been unleashed properly.
Like most photographers, my work bears no resemblance to hers and she would’ve had little interest in what I do. It’s not always easy, but I try not to give away the secrets. I hope that once in awhile I’ve made an image that has gotten there. I offer the photograph at the top of the post in her memory – a bouquet, of sorts, for Diane.
I recall a rank smell blowing in from the salt marsh and there was a nearly implausible red glow of fading sunlight. It flowed through the marsh and spilled over the pilings like fresh blood. It was a beautiful moment to which I gave my best.
Much has been written about Diane Arbus, her life and her work. A starting point is her Wikipedia entry which has a number of worthwhile links:
An outstanding online catalogue of her work may be found here: