PRINT May 1980

Essential Differences: A Comparison of the Portraits of Lisette Model and Diane Arbus

JUDGING FROM PERTINENT LITERATURE, photographic portraiture has been a troublesome object of analysis for historians and critics. And that is understandable. It is one thing to analyze the formal underpinnings of an image whose subject matter, however mundane, is detached, distant, and separate from the viewer’s self-perceptions; it is quite another to analyze portraits whose subjects are human, whose mannerisms and self-projections, therefore, hit dangerously close to home.

When we speak of portraits, we speak of people—and the limits of our discourse are, by necessity, identical with the limits of our self-awareness. Photographic portraiture is an intrinsic part of the life of everyone who lives in a technological society; all of us have derived at least part of our “ideal” self-images from the portraits that constantly bombard us in the mass media, and most of us are photographed for the family album ad infinitum during our childhood and adolescence. As a result, by the time we reach adulthood, we have finely honed our camera personas—so much so that any discussion of photographic portraiture becomes a challenge for us to question ourselves and the modes of self-display that we, and others, have chosen to present to the world.

While this tendency to identify with the sitters in portrait photography can provide critics with rich insights into human nature and self-projection, it can also work against the formulation of objective standards of critical analysis that can be used to discuss such images. The fact that so much of the literature written about photographic portraiture centers on generalizations and interpretations that are subjective to a fault, suggests that many writers on photographic portraiture have, indeed, failed to gain sufficient intellectual distance from their subject matter. Too often, critical writing on this topic has degenerated into judgments on the appearance or social stature of the sitter; Cecil Beaton’s flippantly sexist comments on women’s faces in The Magic Image and Gene Thornton’s assessments of the works of Judy Dater, Larry Fink and Emmet Gowin in The New York Times are examples of the ways in which personality hang-ups and projections take the place of objective critical faculties in the interpretation of portraiture. Photographs offer a world full of particulars, a world in which individuals are described in rich, seemingly objective detail. Unlike paintings, photographic portraits are perceived as pieces of reality, and the inability in this context to separate illusion from reality has caused too many critics to take the content of the images too literally. Caught up in their assessments of the sitters, they find it difficult, if not impossible, to see beyond the subject matter to the total meaning of the image-form.

This preoccupation with the “likeness” aspect of photographic portraiture has often clouded the fact that an image of a person, however specific in detail, is, by definition, an abstraction—an abstraction that can be subjected to modes of intellectual analysis as stringent as those applied to other types of imagery. A three-dimensional individual represented in a two-dimensional photograph is automatically transformed into a symbol, and a symbol that functions within a set of pictorial relationships that in themselves define a metaphoric vision of human beings, of social and ethical relationships, of the world. Seen in this way, every portrait becomes a generalization that can be likened to myth, containing within it a wealth of information about the artist, the sitter, and the cultural and historical moments within which they lived. But in order to tap into this information, photographic critics need to define a methodology that will allow them to enlarge their perspective regarding the levels of meaning contained in imagery, a methodology that will allow them to round out subjective interpretation with more objective critical ideas and thus to extrapolate generalities from the specific.

Art historical literature can provide helpful hints in the formulation of such a methodology. The works of Erwin Panofsky, for instance, provide countless insights into the analysis of images, and in this context the essay “Iconography and Iconology: An Introduction to the Study of Renaissance Art” seems most relevant. Although it is long (and although it doesn’t focus on imagery per se), I will quote the introductory passage of this essay in full, primarily because it provides the best analysis I have found of the levels of meaning implied by human gestures. And it also provides a model for the ways in which specific sense recognitions can be the springboard for far-reaching intellectual insights and analyses:

When an acquaintance greets me on the street by lifting his hat, what I see from a formal point of view is nothing but the change of certain details within a configuration forming part of the general pattern of color, lines and volumes which constitutes my world of vision. When I identify, as I automatically do, this configuration as an object (gentleman), and the change of detail as an event (hat-lifting), I have already overstepped the limits of purely formal perception and entered a first sphere of subject matter or meaning. The meaning thus perceived is of an elementary and easily understandable nature, and we shall call it the factual meaning; it is apprehended by simply identifying certain visible forms with certain objects known to me from practical experience, and by identifying the change in their relations with certain actions or events.

Now the objects and events thus identified will naturally produce a certain reaction within myself. From the way my acquaintance performs his action I may be able to sense whether he is in good or bad humor, and whether his feelings towards me are indifferent, friendly or hostile. These psychological nuances will invest the gestures of my acquaintance with a further meaning which we shall call expressional. It differs from the factual one in that it is apprehended, not by simple identification, but by “empathy.” To understand it, I need a certain sensitivity, but this sensitivity is still part of my practical experience, that is, of my everyday familiarity with objects and events. Therefore both the factual and the expressional meaning may be classified together: they constitute the class of primary or natural meanings.

However, my realization that the lifting of the hat stands for a greeting belongs in an altogether different realm of interpretation. This form of salute is peculiar to the Western world and is a residue of medieval chivalry: armed men used to remove their helmets to make clear their peaceful intentions and their confidence in the peaceful intentions of others. Neither an Australian bushman nor an ancient Greek could be expected to realize that the lifting of a hat is not only a practical event with certain expressional connotations, but also a sign of politeness. To understand this significance of the gentleman’s action I must not only be familiar with the practical world of objects and events, but also with the more-than-practical world of customs and cultural traditions peculiar to a certain civilization. . . . Therefore, when I interpret the lifting of a hat as a polite greeting, I recognize in it a meaning which may be called secondary or conventional; it differs from the primary or natural one in that it is intelligible instead of being sensible, and in that it has been consciously imparted to the practical action by which it is conveyed.

And finally: besides constituting a natural event in space and time, besides naturally indicating moods or feelings, besides conveying a conventional greeting, the action of my acquaintance can reveal to an experienced observer all that goes to make up his “personality.” This personality is conditioned by his being a man of the twentieth century, by his national, social and educational background, by the previous history of his life and by his present surroundings; but it is also distinguished by an individual manner of viewing things and reacting to the world which, if rationalized, would have to be called a philosophy. In the isolated action of a polite greeting all these factors do not manifest themselves comprehensively, but nevertheless symptomatically. We could not construct a mental portrait of the man on the basis of this single action, but only by co-ordinating a large number of similar observations and by interpreting them in connection with our general information as to his period, nationality, class, intellectual traditions and so forth. Yet all the qualities which this mental portrait would show explicitly are implicitly inherent in every single action; so that, conversely, every single action can be interpreted in the light of those qualities.

The meaning thus discovered may be called the intrinsic meaning or content; it is essential where the two other kinds of meaning, the primary or natural and the secondary or conventional, are phenomenal. It may be defined as a unifying principle which underlies and explains both the visible event and its intelligible significance, and which determines even the form in which the visible event takes shape.1

The relevance of this analysis for the criticism of photographic portraiture—which is, by definition, a description of human bodies, gestures and expressions—should be obvious; but Panofsky goes further, transferring this mode of analysis to the explication of art objects. Taking the three levels here discussed as his guidelines, he defines the three corresponding levels of meaning in works of art. The first, which he terms pre-iconographical description, includes the recognition of primary or natural subject matter, both factual and expressional, which he sees as constituting the world of artistic motifs. The second, which he calls iconographical description, is the study of secondary or conventional subject matter. And the third, iconological analysis, deals with the intrinsic meaning or content—the world of symbolic values underlying, and manifesting themselves in, the pure forms, motifs and pictorial relationships in a given work of art.

This third level of meaning—the iconological—seems to me to be a very important one, yet it is the level which is rarely, if ever, addressed in discussions of photographic portraiture. Most discourse within the photographic field, in fact, takes place on the level of pre-iconographic and iconographic description. And the lack of iconological understanding has caused more than a few distortions in our perceptions of photographic portraits. It has, for example, clouded our understanding of the works of both Lisette Model a and Diane Arbus.

Arbus studied with Model at The New School for Social Research in New York, and their work, as a result, is often lumped together in critical discussions. There are obvious reasons for seeing similarities in their work: both focus on portraiture, both have chosen “extreme” types of people as sitters, and both create renderings of people that are perceived by critics as “grotesque.” Yet these similarities exist on the pre-iconographical and iconographical levels of analysis only. A study of the iconological aspects of each of their image-making processes yields insight into the very different sensibilities, and the very different attitudes toward human beings, society and life itself, that motivated the two.

BORN IN VIENNA IN 1906 of wealthy and cultured parents, Lisette Model came to the United States in 1938, after studying music with Arnold Schoenberg, and won immediate acclaim (as well as some notoriety) for a series of photographs taken in 1937 of idlers on Nice’s Promenade des Anglais. Model became a photographer by a circuitous route. As she tells it, she was living in Paris and painting pictures in 1937 when a friend suggested to her that the impending war might make it necessary for her to earn a living. Although she had no technical photographic experience, she decided to become a laboratory and darkroom technician. The Nice photographs which established her reputation—and which prompted Edward Steichen to call her one of the foremost photographers of her time—were the results of her early experiments with the medium. Model sprang full-blown into the world of photography, and for this reason it is important to emphasize, in any discussion of her work, the ideas that shaped her vision even before she came into contact with the camera. For all of Model’s work, from the 1930s to the present day, reflects the intense humanism of the European culture out of which she emerged.

I will not be speaking of specific influences here (Model maintains, in fact, that though people and art works may be important to her, they never influence her); I am interested rather in discussing an attitude—toward art as well as life—that is at the core of Model’s sensibility. Although this artist’s candid black-and-white photographs can be viewed within the documentary tradition, they differ radically in sensibility and formal construction from most of the street photographs that have been influential in the American photographic community since the mid-1960s. Whereas photographers like Garry Winogrand and Mark Cohen emphasize, in their use of truncated figures and seemingly random compositional arrangements, the camera’s ability to arrest the flux and movement of urban life, Model creates an orderly, highly structured set of pictorial relationships within her images that reflect her involvement with traditional painterly concerns.

This involvement is evident on a purely formal level in Model’s centered, often classically balanced compositions. Although her sitters are most often captured unawares, their central positions within the frame (and the fact that they are most often stationary) insure that nothing looks arbitrary or unplanned within these pictures. Most of Model’s compositional arrangements are simple yet striking, and play off large light and dark tonal masses against elegant linear designs. In one image, for instance, the sloping curves of the body of a transient asleep on a stone bench are seen amidst the broad tonal masses and curvilinear outlines of a dark gray backdrop which is set against a light sky; in another, an obese man who dominates the picture plane is seen from the rear, and the linear design of his horizontally striped shirt counterpoints the wooden slats of the chair on which he sits.

This insistent formalism is a crucial factor in Model’s work. On an iconological level, such highly ordered compositional arrangements create a unified and self-contained pictorial domain that disassociates these photographs from the flux of “real” life and establishes an esthetic distance that separates Model’s sitters from those of us who inhabit the “real” world. Model’s very deliberate estheticism works in tension with the sharp-focus, realistic detail of her photographs, setting up a duality between the real and the idealized, best described by Baudelaire in an essay devoted to the work of Constantin Guys. In this essay, “The Painter of Modern Life,” the author explained the ways in which the painter both perceived and expressed the innate “heroism” of modern life: “He makes it his business to extract from fashion whatever element it may contain of poetry within history, to distill the eternal from the transitory.”2 Model’s documentary photographs may depict specific individuals in candid moments, but her iconological treatment of these sitters always elevates their “transitory” moments into reflections of the “eternal.” For all of the emphasis on the particulars of “fashion” or the detail of individual physiognomies in her work, Model’s is a vision that is persistently engaged in transforming descriptions of specific persons into universalized renditions of human types that embody the “heroism” of modern life.

The tendency to make heroes of individuals is manifested quite literally in Model’s portrait work: anyone frozen by this artist’s camera, be they vagrant bum or rich matron, is automatically perceived as being larger-than-life. Most of Model’s images are printed in 16 by 20 inch size, and the striking impact of the reproductions in her newly-published monograph, Lisette Model,3 explains why the artist was unwilling to exhibit her work in book form until a publisher agreed to print the images in an appropriately large scale. In many ways, Model’s images are about scale, since she consistently photographs her subjects at close range and from an extremely low vantage point. Seen in this way, “real” people are metamorphosized into looming beings of massive—heroic—proportions and volume. The artist often emphasizes this effect by indulging her predilection for obese subjects, whose enormous bodies displace an inordinate amount of space within the picture plane. And the close proximity of these Amazonian creatures to the camera, which seems literally to have invaded their personal space, makes them appear simultaneously awesome, ominous and almost grotesque.

Since these superhumans dominate the picture plane and thereby overshadow their environments, the expressive weight of the pictures is centered on the facial expressions, body language, clothing and accessories of Model’s subjects, who thereby achieve a heightened emotional/psychological presence that matches their physical stature. Within this context, Model’s “extreme” (her words)4 sitters—who are most often either excessively fat or skinny, either extremely rich or poor—take on the air of character actors whose attributes are exaggerated into theatrical displays. Display is an important word here, in light of the fact that Model chooses to photograph primarily in public spaces; she focuses on social faces, on public personas—not private ones. Since Model never speaks to her sitters before photographing them, her assessments are made on an impersonal, purely visual level; a carefully circumscribed psychological distance is maintained between the photographer and her subjects. But at the same time—and this dichotomy is the source of the enormous power of her work—Model violates this psychological/social distance when she invades the personal space of her sitters with her camera and renders their physiognomies with a startling intimacy of detail.

The dual focus that emerges from this dichotomy has a startling effect: it allows Model to illuminate, without destroying, the social personas of her subjects while simultaneously revealing the underlying character traits from which these grow. Although the artist is drawn to photograph only a limited range of human “types,” the range of personality characteristics she reveals is broad, since her assessments of her sitters’ attributes are never shallow or stereotypic. The wrinkles on one face may graphically trace the effects of time and suffering, while those on another appear to have hardened like pancake make-up, belying a cruel and petty personal history; while one sitter’s bulbous stomach may seem evidence of decadence and sloth, another’s equally massive girth may appear the measure of his joy and vitality. After a while, the bodies of these sitters begin to seem the visual manifestations of the life forces which sustain—and often punish—them; their lined faces reflect and underscore the experiences that life has brought to them; their gestures and accessories flesh out the picture by revealing how each of these subjects has responded to the myriad forces that shape an individual life. Thus a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional picture of each of Model’s unique sitters begins to emerge, a picture which emphasizes the way personality and experience merge to become embodied in a living, physical form and which testifies to the continuity between the inner life and its outer manifestations.

Though usually nonspecific, the forces that shape these individuals’ lives are always evident in Model’s photographs. Since the artist photographs within public spaces—and since she is given to depicting people at the extreme ends of the economic scale—all of her sitters are social beings, and the forces of society clearly mark them. Even though Model does not emphasize the environments of her sitters, she always reveals the personality stresses that define people caught in the midst of a particular social world, which attempts, and sometimes succeeds, in shaping them; note, for instance, the image of a Wall Street executive in a bowler hat, who passes beneath an authoritative statue of George Washington, his tightly drawn lips exactly mirroring the lines of Washington’s sculpted mouth. But as often the very bodies of Model’s subjects seem to battle against their social constrictions. Consider a tiny, poorly dressed and disheveled woman from New York’s Lower East Side depicted in the midst of a gesture that is full of a sinuous elegance that seems jarringly out of place in the context of filthy streets and ragged clothes; or the stance of a large woman seated firmly on the stoop of a Lower East Side brownstone, her massive body like a bulwark of strength and determination that will never yield to the pressures of her social disadvantages.

But there are other pressures, other forces besides economic ones, that battle within the bodies of Model’s sitters: even the wealthy ones cannot escape the dictates of human life. A skinny, obviously rich, older woman, for example, who was photographed in San Francisco, is depicted as she sits on a bench, her body tense, her arms clasped to her waist; she looks impatiently to the right of the frame, lips pursed. The flesh which hangs in loose folds from her bony facial structure seems to have shriveled and then hardened under layers of heavily applied, almost adolescent, make-up. This facial mask, offset as it is by ornate, severely-cut clothes and elaborate accessories of lace and fur and flowers and gold, makes this woman seem like a flamboyant fossil who cannot—will not—yield to the inevitable changes wrought by time. There is a terrible futility about this woman’s private battle, but there is also a peculiarly human kind of dignity, a peculiarly human kind of heroism.

Model’s ability to perceive the strength and suffering of the poor and to cut through the elaborate artifices of the rich has caused some to read her portraits as social critiques. Elizabeth McCausland, for one, writing in Photo Notes in 1941, stated: “It is the hypocrisy and connivance of social institutions which the photographs document through the faces of human beings. The scorn and hatred of the photographer are directed not against the human victims but against the social forces which victimize them.”5 Lou Stettner, contrasting Model’s images of the rich and the poor in Camera 35 in 1975, described her pictures of poverty-stricken individuals as showing “great sympathy . . . (and) an equal amount of grieving for the wasted potential that is being so irrevocably lost.” Looking at what he called “the reverse side of her work,” he stated that “she deals in the most biting, sarcastic terms with gamblers and the idle rich. I feel the photographs are saying ‘These people are doomed by their own greed, just as inevitably as if a death sentence was cast upon them.’”6

Actually, these interpretations seem to have more to do with the liberal sentiments of the writers than any sentiment put forth by the artist in her works. It is true that Model’s camera is often kinder to the poor than to the rich; the poor sitters that she chooses to photograph have fewer social defenses to penetrate—and more battles to fight—than the rich, and she makes that clear. But Model hardly shifts from anger to compassion accordingly as Stettner implies; in fact, she is extremely consistent in tone and approach, regardless of the subject matter upon which she focuses. She works with a basic portrait structure and format that rarely varies, and her eye is insistently shrewd and piercing in its gaze.

Any analysis that attempts to divide Model’s oeuvre into mutually exclusive categories on the basis of social class fails to take into account the fact that Model’s vision is as single-minded as it is complex. It is Model’s commitment to penetrating the social faces of all people—rich or poor, fat or thin—that unifies her portrait work, making iconographic distinctions based on social class seem both simplistic and superficial. None of her subjects are simply victims, or simply losers; they are all too solid, too assertive in their pictorial presences, too prepossessing for that. And none of them are clear-cut winners, either. Model’s vision of human beings is far too holistic, far too sensitive to the turmoil and complexity of the inner life, to allow her to make assessments that are based on external circumstances or appearances. And her commitment to revealing the unique individual is too intense to allow her to judge her sitters on the basis of abstract ideological principles. This artist uses other criteria when she looks at her fellow human beings; her main objective is to uncover the essence of human character—in its socially defined sense.

Though Model’s vision takes into account social forces, it puts these into a larger perspective that transforms the most mundane and particular postures, gestures and expressions into revelations of human character that transcend boundaries of time, space, nationality and social class. The specificity of her images firmly centers each of her portraits in the human personality who is experiencing, or has experienced, the social, economic, metaphysical or personal forces that together shape a human life. And this emphasis on the individual—who serves in her work as the anchor for all experience, the vessel which assimilates and responds to the gamut of human joys and pains—allows her to express an unshakeable faith in the complexity, resilience and strength—the innate heroism—of human character. The character she depicts may be strong or weak, may be kind or cruel—but the character is always there, in all of her subjects, as a constant testimony to the life force that sustains and unites all of us, regardless of social status or economic privilege.

Though Model’s gaze may appear harsh or even cruel to the viewers of her photographs, this artist’s vision is essentially an optimistic one, for it is based on an affirmation of an archetypal and yet infinitely varied human essence, at once grand and petty, heroic and absurd. And this affirmation sets her apart from her documentary colleagues who came of age in America after World War II; hers is a vision born of a time and a culture very different from the one that nurtured Diane Arbus.

IN HER INTRODUCTION TO the monograph entitled Diane Arbus, the artist stated: “I remember a long time ago when I first began to photograph I thought, There are an awful lot of people in the world and it’s going to be terribly hard to photograph all of them, so if I photograph some kind of generalized human being, everybody’ll recognize it. It’ll be like what they used to call the common man or something. It was my teacher, Lisette Model, who finally made it clear to me that the more specific you are, the more general it’ll be.”7

Model’s lessons were well learned by Arbus, but they were filtered through a sensibility which was as different from Model’s as was Arbus’ background. Born in New York city in 1923, Arbus was the second of three children, whose father, David Nemerov, owned a large Fifth Avenue department store called Russek’s. Arbus grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish environment, which in itself is not so extraordinary. What was unusual, however, was her response to her upbringing in this environment: “One of the things I felt I suffered from as a kid was I never felt adversity. I was confirmed in a sense of unreality which I could only feel as unreality. And the sense of being immune was, ludicrous as it seems, a painful one. It was as if I didn’t inherit my own kingdom for a long time. The world seemed to me to belong to the world. I could learn things but they never seemed to be my own experience.” This sense of separation from the world, of immunity from other people’s experience, grew from a very personal, very specific childhood trauma into a general vision of people’s unbridgeable isolation from each other—and as such it became the basis of the photographic vision which, more than any other, expresses the alienation and the disillusionment that surfaced in America during the 1960s.

This sense of isolation irrevocably separates Arbus’ work from Model’s. It also helps to clarify the difference in the way these two women use their cameras. Model’s vision is penetrating; she wields her camera aggressively and uses her lens, like the cutting edge of a razor blade, to slice through social niceties and expose the people and personalities they conceal. There is a stinging harshness in Model’s images, but implicit in the photographer’s aggressive attitude is a deep-seated trust: that there is something essential to expose, some common denominator that binds all people, that runs deeper and is more profound than external mannerisms or circumstances—and that this essence can be uncovered through close scrutiny.

There is no such trust in Arbus’ gaze; in fact, this photographer’s camera continually negates the possibility of penetrating—or even understanding—the depths of another’s experience. “What I’m trying to describe,” she once said, “is that it’s impossible to get out of your skin into somebody else’s. And that’s what all this is a little bit about. That somebody else’s tragedy is not the same as your own.” Feeling always like a “tourist” (Susan Sontag’s word)8 in her own life, Arbus took up the camera in order to gain license to become a tourist in the lives of other people.

The relationships that Arbus established with her sitters were complex. Unlike Model, who doesn’t speak to her sitters before photographing them and therefore makes her assessments on visual data alone, Arbus made friends with her subjects and often, especially if they were social outcasts, became involved in their lives. Her ability to do this is often cited by critics as the reason why her portraits should be perceived as both compassionate and courageous, but the photographer’s motives were not that simple. For no matter how friendly Arbus became with her sitters, she remained a socially acceptable member of the middle class—and as such was free to come and go, to enter into and then pull back from situations in which her sitters were trapped either by birth or by circumstance. And Arbus was well aware that her mobility gave her an edge in these relationships.

The artist’s self-conscious awareness of her distance and her isolation allowed her to transform the voyeurism implicit in picture-taking into an assertion of power over her sitters. These people functioned as found objects for Arbus, providing her with ready-made access to vicarious experiences from which her camera both distanced and protected her. “I have this funny thing which is that I’m never afraid when I’m looking in the ground glass. . . . ” she said. “But there’s a kind of power thing about the camera. I mean every one knows you’ve got some edge. You’re carrying some slight magic which does something to them. It fixes them in a way.” She also said her vacillation between experiencing the ingratiation of her sitters and asserting control over them made her feel “kind of two-faced.” Yet, ethics aside (for the moment), the disturbing impact of her images lies in their ability to communicate—simultaneously—both of these contradictory responses.

The complex ways in which Arbus used her camera parallel the complexities of her relationships with her sitters. Where Model is actively aggressive, Arbus was passive/aggressive, and she used her camera in a manner that was both tentative and quite manipulative. Her tentativeness is evident in the way that she approached many of her sitters. Generally seen from nonthreatening social distance, her subjects are often posed. Aware of the camera’s presence, they project their self-images quite consciously to the artist’s lens, perhaps because Arbus was always careful not to probe beneath these external displays. In most of her photographs, in fact, Arbus’ gaze rests on the surface; there is very little penetration of inner motivations or individual personality within her oeuvre. And this is true in spite of the intimacy her portraits project. The intimacy projected by her photographs is, in large measure, the source of their manipulation—both of the sitters and of the viewers. This intimacy is communicated in several ways, and in all of these ways Arbus’ images differ radically from Model’s.

The younger artist, first of all, worked not only within public but more often within private spaces. Where Model’s figures tend to dominate the picture plane, leaving little room for their environments to act as more than settings or elements within the compositional design, Arbus’ subjects are often surrounded by paraphernalia which provides a great deal of information about their life styles and which takes up more space within the frame than the sitters themselves. Note, for instance, an image taken of a widow in her New York City bedroom, an image which depicts the sitter as small and almost overwhelmed by the lush draperies and the elaborate array of bric-a-brac that surrounds her. In fact, in Arbus’ photographs the details of the sitters’ life styles, the spaces they inhabit, the clothing they wear (or don’t wear) are often more assertively described than the psychological and emotional characters of the sitters themselves—even though these people pose for the camera with an openness and trust that seems both touching and “intimate.”

Arbus reinforces this feeling of intimacy by her choice of pictorial devices. Unlike Model, who chooses to photograph from a low vantage point and thus to exaggerate the scale—and aggrandize the emotional/physical stature—of her subjects, Arbus photographs her sitters head-on, from a conventional, eye-level point of view. There are no heroes in these pictures; there are “just plain folks,” who candidly look out at the viewer. The sense of identification such a visual relationship provokes in us is strengthened by Arbus’ straightforward “no-style.” Whereas Model uses compositional elements to attain an esthetic distance, Arbus asserts the documentary, descriptive qualities of camera vision, emphasizing her subject matter and correspondingly de-emphasizing artifice. Her work thus achieves the “realistic,” spontaneous look and feel often associated with family snapshots. In having chosen to work within the unpretentious, “nonart” language of popular imagery, Arbus used the signifying power of her style to reinforce the sense of identification she consistently attempted to forge between her sitters and her viewers.

But this bond of identification was, of course, impossible to achieve; and all of Arbus’ self-conscious gestures to this end simply manage to underline the enormous cultural gaps that separate the photographer and most of her middle-class viewers from the experiential realities of most of her sitters. Whereas Model’s “extreme” subjects, with very few exceptions, can still be perceived as existing within the mainstream of society, Arbus is best known for her images of “freaks”—transvestites, midgets, giants, the insane, etc.—who are very much outside the range of bourgeois culture. No matter how intimately these subjects disclose the details of their lives, no matter how candidly they relate to the camera, they are always gazing at us across a cultural distance of which Arbus was only too aware and which she brilliantly used to manipulate not only her sitters, but also her viewers. As Max Kozloff wrote: “Arbus gives us people . . . highly conscious they are being photographed. And this consciousness feeds content directly into our understanding that something has gone wrong. We look at these prints fully aware of a singular disparity between our consciousness and the sitters.”9

This disparity in perceptions pointed up in Arbus’ portraits is as important for an understanding of her work as it is unsettling, for it creates an ambiguity that remains unresolvable. There is a constant vacillation—between intimacy and distance, between identification and estrangement, between candor and manipulation—in these pictures; as a result, the viewer is forced to experience both the self-images so comfortably projected by the sitters and the horror and fascination experienced by the photographer. Arbus’ images of people float them in an amorphous no man’s land that the artist called “the gap between intention and effect.” She stated: “Everybody has that thing where they need to look one way but they come out looking another way and that’s what people observe . . . It’s just extraordinary that we should have been given these peculiarities. And, not content with what we were given, we create a whole other set. Our whole guise is like giving a sign to the world to think of us in a certain way but there’s a point between what you want people to know about you and what you can’t help people knowing about you.” The schism between intention and effect, between self-image and another’s perception of that image, is evident in all of Arbus’ portraits of people and, once again, differentiates her work from Model’s. The older artist emphasizes the continuity between inner life and outer form; her people are always perceived as “whole.” Those of the younger artist are deliberately fragmented.

Another difference in their work is that Arbus’ range of subject matter and stylistic means is more varied than Model’s. Her portrait work includes not only images of single subjects (Model’s primary, though not exclusive, focus) but also of couples, families and groups; she photographs not only people at the extremes of society but also members of varied economic strata, of all ages and various ethnic backgrounds. Sometimes these people are captured in candid moments, though much of the time they are posed; sometimes they inhabit their private spaces, and at other times they are photographed in public. But in spite of the range of subject matter and stylistic devices she employed, Arbus’ vision is extremely limited in its range of expression and in its assertion of the subtle nuances of diversity in human personalities. It is, in fact, obsessively one-dimensional: all of her sitters, regardless of their appearance or circumstances, are transformed into oddities of one kind or another. And this insistent sameness suggests that Arbus’ photographs are much more assertive of the artist’s subjective point of view—and much more manipulative of the sitter’s image—than Model’s.

Model’s work is unified by consistent stylistic devices that underscore a consistent vision of humanity, and this constancy of vision and pictorial device allows Model to choose her subjects and then to “disappear,” leaving them to assert their individuality and thus to flesh out a multi-dimensional—if still subjective—picture of the human species. The uniformity of Arbus’ images works in the reverse. Arbus manipulates and alters her visual and stylistic devices in relation to her various subjects, thereby asserting subjective responses that override differences in individual personalities and circumstances and transform all of her subjects into reflections of her own personal trauma. Therefore, the consistency of her expression is achieved by her decision to consistently shift her points of view as a photographer. “I work from awkwardness. By that I mean I don’t like to arrange things,” she once said. “If I stand in front of something, instead of arranging it, I arrange myself.”

Arbus’ work can be divided as to point of view into two groupings, which are roughly, though not exclusively, based on the social situations of her sitters. In most of her images of social outcasts or eccentrics, Arbus adopts a straightforward documentary style: these people are almost always posed and seem comfortable with the camera, as at ease with their self-images as with the photographer. There is little inherent in these images that implies a judgment, little within the pictures themselves that make these people appear grotesque or miserable—this response is a function only of the viewer’s perceptions of their emotional lives or their physical deformities.

In Seated Man in Bra and Stockings, for instance, the subject sits comfortably in a chair and gazes at the photographer; he is obviously quite at home in his unconventional clothing. Likewise, in the Mexican Dwarf in His Hotel Room the subject sits with his liquor bottle and smiles at the camera while revealing a good deal of his unconventionally shaped body. The husband and wife standing in the woods in a nudist camp gaze without reservation at the camera. Reminiscent of Adam and Eve, they are obviously nonchalant about their nakedness, and their nonchalance subverts all notions of shame or sexuality that are usually attached to the body (especially the imperfect body, which does not conform to societal standards of perfection).

As well, Arbus’ images of the insane simply depict people in the midst of having a great deal of unselfconscious fun, thereby undermining all stereotypic notions of the violence and misery experienced by “crazy” and socially ostracized people. In these images, Arbus suspends judgment; she is well aware that the schisms between conventional ideas and the realities she describes will create a discomfort more pronounced than any judgment could be.

In many of her images of middle- and upper-class sitters, on the other hand, she is extremely judgmental in her point of view, and manifests this particularly in the moments she chooses to freeze. These portraits are more often candid than those of social outcasts, and these unposed depictions invariably capture their subjects in the worst possible light.

In the Woman with the Veil on Fifth Avenue, for instance, the subject is seen from such a close vantage point that her puffy face, framed as it is by a double chin, pearl earrings, a fur collar and a hat, cannot help but appear grotesque and piglike. Babies are depicted by Arbus as wailing, crying and drooling monsters; a child holding a toy hand grenade in Central Park is loathsome because of the seemingly mad and uncontrolled distortions of his body and face. And the young Brooklyn family—a perfect American four-person nuclear unit—poses in such a peculiar way that all four of them look more “insane” than inmates of an asylum.

By employing this approach, Arbus inverted the cultural points of view on “normalcy” that pervade the media and the thinking of most middle-class Americans, thereby calling into question the whole notion of normalcy. For many years a fashion photographer, Arbus was well aware of the powerful role that images play in shaping an idealized and pervasive vision of reality, which in turn propagates the world view of the middle- and upper-classes. By depicting social outcasts in conventional poses and at the same time presenting a demented vision of more “acceptable” individuals, she challenged the rightness of the social order by co-opting and undermining its image-forms. As Susan Sontag wrote, these portraits were her way of saying “fuck Vogue, fuck fashion, fuck what’s pretty.”10

Yet the irony of Arbus’ work is that she tried to undermine the social order while working very much within its dictates; indeed, the very impact of her pictures depends on the existence of the norms she purports to challenge. Although the accepted social standards of normalcy are not immediately evident in her photographs, they are everywhere by implication; they function as the source of her vision and as the framework within which her rebellion achieves its meaning. These norms provided the negative impetus against which Arbus created—and against which she defined her vision of the world. And, most important, they provided her with the negative standards by which she judged the worth—or lack thereof—of human lives. These inverted social definitions allowed her to make blanket assessments of whole classes and types of people that were startlingly simplistic and naive, that had little to do with individual personality or situation and everything to do with the external mannerisms or appearances that defined position within the social order. By perceiving outcasts as “aristocrats” and the bourgeoisie as a sideshow of oddities, Arbus created new standards that were as shallow—and as stereotypic—as those that she despised.

The central role that social definitions play in Arbus’ portraiture separates her, once again, from Lisette Model. Whereas Model’s vision of human beings focuses on the individual and thus works to transcend the limitations of social definitions, Arbus sees all individuals as locked within a social framework that both defines and damns them. August Sander, too, was a documentary photographer who perceived his countrymen within their social roles, yet the world which Sander described was a world in which self-images and social standings were in accord. Sander was thus able to depict “whole” people in relation to, and secure within, a social framework. Arbus is operating within no such secure framework. Her overwhelming, almost obsessive, awareness of societal norms—coupled as it is with her inability to believe them—gives us a vision of a social order which is the only available option but which provides its inhabitants with no concrete and stable reference points. It cannot match up its images to its realities; it is riddled with gaps that can be masked but never closed. And the people who struggle to survive in this situation are given no depth or separate inner existence in Arbus’ photographs, no possibilities to achieve a wholeness that could allow them to transcend the shallowness and futility of their social circumstances. So they become victims: of the social system, of their own delusions—and finally of the photographer. For by undermining the credibility of the only option that she sees for her sitters—society as it is—Arbus undermines the very illusions that allow them to play out their lives.

And this is why every personal treasure that decorates the home environment, every posture or expression, and every article of clothing becomes a mannerism that is somehow disconnected, disembodied from human roots: a self-projection that seems to float in the gap where personality should be. In Arbus’ shifting and unstable world, there are no roots; there are only external displays. Each of these self-projections becomes, therefore, a masquerade that conceals, but cannot completely hide, an essential lack. In this context, the teenage couple (on New York City’s Hudson Street), dressed in overcoats and standing in postures reminiscent of their parents, seem no more or less absurd than a transvestite in feathers or a bourgeois matron in a bird mask. All of these people—along with the rich women in their jewelry and furs, the circus performer with his tattoos, the nudist with swan sunglasses—are building the same defenses, reaching for the same lifeboat, trying in the same way to conceal from themselves the essential void that Arbus perceives in their lives.

And this, finally, separates Model’s work from that of Arbus. Model’s is a vision with a center, and that center is the human essence; in her portraits, the social experiences and illusions of humankind are assimilated, challenged, accepted and ultimately transformed into a personality that transcends them all: that transmutes absurdity, futility, suffering and fear as well as grandeur, joy and strength into a deeply rooted, almost existential life force. In Arbus’ world, where, in Yeats’ words, “the centre cannot hold,”11 there is no such essential human reality to fall back on, no such existential strength to call forth. There is only a social world, a world out-of-sync and fragmented, a world inhabited by victims, one and all. It is a world in which there is aberration but from which there is no escape.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion wrote.12 Lisette Model has clung to her personal story throughout her life, and it has sustained a long and productive career. Diane Arbus, like Didion, stopped believing in her own narrative somewhere along the line. And, until her suicide in 1971, she spent her life making images that were testimony to the existential absurdity of everyone else’s.

Shelley Rice is a New York-based critic who writes primarily about photography and multi-media art.



1. Erwin Panofsky, “Iconography and Iconology: An Introduction to the Study of Renaissance Art,” Meaning in the Visual Arts, Doubleday Anchor Books 1955, pp. 26–8.

2. Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life,” The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, Phaidon, 1970, p. 12.

3. Lisette Model, with an introduction by Berenice Abbott, Aperture, 1979.

4. Lisette Model quoted by Carol Sowers in an interview in Interview, Jan 1980.

5. Elizabeth McCausland, Photo Notes, June 1941, pp. 3–4, reprinted from the Springfield Sunday union and Republican, May 1941.

6. Lou Stettner, “Speaking Out,” Camera 35, volume 19, number 4, June 1975.

7. This and all subsequent quotes by Arbus are from the introduction to the monograph, Diane Arbus, Aperture, 1972.

8. Susan Sontag, On Photography, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1977, p. 57.

9. Max Kozlolf, “The Uncanny Portrait Sander, Arbus, Samaras,” Photography and Fascination, Addison House, 1979, p. 152.

10. Sontag, op.cit., p. 44.

11. W.B Yeats, “The Second Coming,” Selected Poems and Two Plays of William Butler Yeats, edited and with an introduction by M.L. Rosenthal, Collier Books, 1962, p. 91.

12. Joan Didion, “The White Album,” The White Album, Simon and Schuster, 1979, p. 11.