If it is too often said about Diane Arbus that she photographs freaks, it does at least suggest that we know what normal people are like, what people look like when they are not odd. It is reassuring to be reminded that we know a freak when we see one. There are, of course, points of view, angles from which we can all look like freaks to ourselves; and Arbus is unusually eloquent about this and about the way the camera can pick up the unwanted perspective. But the enthusiastic unease that her work generates, the pleasure we take from it, has something to do with our wondering what it must be to be people like that; and by the same token, what it must be to be people like us who for some reason - and Arbus was herself exercised by this - are fascinated by freaks like that: indeed, want pictures and exhibitions of them; want something from representations of them that we mostly don't want from them in person. Arbus's unique way of not turning a blind eye satisfies something in us. She has not, it should be noted, created a fashion for her subject-matter, but for her photographs, which, whatever else they do, create a kind of vicarious sociability with people we suspect we mostly wouldn't be able to get on with.
LRB 26 January 2006 | PDF Download