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Life through the Lens of Diane Arbus

Published on
Sep 20, 2021
Written by
Aisling Gogan
Published by
Edited by
Abigail Chevalier

As the economy re-opens and people begin to regain a sense of normalcy despite the ever-present pandemic, many people are eager to re-visit frequented galleries and museums. Take the AGO for instance, which in compliance with public health guidelines, re-opened its doors to visitors on July 2nd and is currently showing a solo exhibition – Diane Arbus: Photographs, 1956-1971. Curated by Sophie Hackett, the AGO’s curator – the collection presents their landmark acquisition in 2016 of 522 works, the world’s second-largest collection of Arbus photographs, which highlight the artist’s evolution over a fifteen-year period.

I had the pleasure of attending this exhibit and walked out with a new appreciation for the curious details of people. I feel compelled to share my thoughts and encourage anyone looking to re-immerse themselves into Toronto’s arts + culture scene to visit.

“These are our symptoms and our monuments. I want simply to save them, for what is ceremonious and curious and commonplace will be legendary” - Diane Arbus.  

Diane Arbus was an American artist who grew up in an affluent New York City family. Over the course of her life, she became renowned for her style of humanistic photography, of subjects she found curious and eccentric – often those on the ‘margins’ of society.

Arranged for the first time in chronological order from the 1950s’ - 70s’, the AGO’s exhibit walks visitors through Arbus’s progression as an artist. In addition to her photographs, it displays letters and working notebook entries which offer a glimpse into her personality. From her early frames, shot in 35mm format, to her later frames, shot in her iconic 2 ¼ Rolleiflex format, each image implores viewers to seek out meaning in human difference.

There is habitualness in the moments she captures. Yet her subjects – couples, children, nudists, circus performers, drag performers, people with intellectual disabilities – have been chosen for their singularity. You may recognize some of her work; the deeply haunting yet alluring Identical twins, Roselle New Jersey, 1967 which inspired the twins seen in the 1980 film, The Shining, or the portrait of A Young Man and His Pregnant Wife in Washington Square Park.


Her chosen modality of film photography is meaningful and engaging because it allows viewers to understand the subject without reform or positioning. Arbus once stated that her photos set out to capture, “the space between who someone is and who they think they are”, a sentiment that articulates her results. Whether she was photographing a close friend or a complete stranger, Arbus positioned herself to capture the most authentic portrayal of the individual.

One of my personal favourites in the exhibit was the series of images capturing adults with intellectual disabilities at state institutions in New Jersey in 1969. Arbus shares with us an intimate portrait of disability that honours the beauty in ordinary moments.

Often referred to as the “Photographer of freaks”, and sometimes called a freak herself, Arbus admired the often unusual people she photographed. Her approach to her craft was intimate and almost voyeuristic. In the above image, Diane Arbus, Untitled (6), 1970–71, we see that the interaction between the subjects is one of individual yet collective – one of friendship and closeness. Arbus was able to build an understanding between viewer and subject; a pertinent component for forming new perspectives on old contradictions surrounding different intersectionalities.

However, Arbus’s subject matter would have been received as controversial to viewers during the early 60s’ and 70s’ when the different intersectionalities of race, gender, class, and ability were often challenged. People were often ostracized who were found to be different or unusual, the term called “othering”. As society moved out of a post-war era into one of the wide-spread social tensions, it became increasingly important for her to document a diverse range of human experiences to normalize them in the context of society.


The Arbus exhibit is the first major solo exhibit in Canada in over three decades and its timing could not be more salient. At a moment when the world feels divided by ideology, politics are fierce, and the threat of a global pandemic persists, we must find new ways to respect each other's differences and highlight our commonalities. As we continue to witness wide-spread discrimination, it is critical to examine art such as Arbus’s that present an array of identities.

Not only does the exhibit highlight the revolutionary work that Arbus produced, but also her profound influence on photography. Her humanistic style has continued to inspire photographers and other multidisciplinary artists, to capture honest, authentic moments and has sparked a new generation to engage in a critical dialogue about her work.

Unsettling to some but undoubtedly compelling, Diane’s body of work is important to disseminate in order to understand another’s perspective. In such a turbulent time, these revealing images remind us of the shared human experience and show us that our commonplace moments are in fact; legendary.

The Diane Arbus exhibit is currently on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario and invites a new generation of viewers and critics to debate the meaning and beauty within her photography.