Who Is Normal? The Strange Beauty of Diane Arbus

Man in hat, trunks, socks and shoes, Coney Island, NY, 1960, by Diane Arbus

Man in hat, trunks, socks and shoes, Coney Island, NY, 1960, by Diane Arbus

‘You see someone on the street, and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw.'
Diane Arbus

I recently attended an excellent exhibition of the early work of photographer Diane Arbus. (‘Diane Arbus: In the Beginning’ is at The Hayward Gallery, London until 6 May.)

Diane Nemerov was born in New York in 1923. Her parents owned Russek’s, a Fifth Avenue department store, and she grew up in some comfort. At 18 she married her childhood sweetheart, Allan Arbus, and soon after she took up photography. For just over a decade the Arbuses ran a commercial photography business, with Diane contributing as stylist and art director. In 1956 she quit and began life as an independent photographer.

'My favorite thing is to go where I've never been.'

Arbus wandered the streets of New York searching for subjects. She was drawn to Central Park, Times Square and Coney Island; to bars and barbershops, the subway and snack bars, movie theatres and the morgue.

'Nothing is ever the same as they said it was. It's what I've never seen before that I recognize.'

Arbus was fascinated by human frailty and eccentricity. Perhaps what we take for ordinary may be worth a second look. Here’s a slim kid with a toy hand grenade, a teenager in a monster mask, a uniformed usher by the box office, an elderly lady in a mink stole. Parents carry sleeping children. Here’s an anxious man yelling in the street, a couple arguing - snarling, eyes bulging - a mannequin in an evening gown.  The world seems somehow crooked, distorted, out of joint.

‘I am full of a sense of promise, like I often have, the feeling of always being at the beginning.’

Arbus’ pictures suggest stories that are just beyond reach, incomplete narratives that are about to begin. A down-at-heel Santa Claus walks the city streets. A boy in an ill-fitting boater wears a ‘Bomb Hanoi’ badge.  An elderly Uncle Sam looks depressed and tired in his tatty apartment. 

'If you scrutinize reality closely enough, if in some way you really, really get to it, it becomes fantastic.’

Arbus is also interested in our relationship with entertainment. She photographs the TV and the cinema screen: a blonde about to be kissed, a screaming woman with blood on her hands, a man being choked to death. She is particularly drawn to the world of stage performers and circus sideshows. She introduces us to trapeze artists, strippers and cha cha dancers; wrestlers, fire eaters and female impersonators. A clown in a fedora. We meet ‘The Human Pincushion’ and ‘The Jungle Creep.’ Andy ‘Potato Chips’ Ratoucheff gives us his Maurice Chevalier impersonation.

'A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.'

In the past some critics expressed suspicion of Arbus. Is she just giving us a ‘freak show’? Is she exploiting the vulnerable? Is she lacking empathy or compassion?

Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, L.I. 1959, by Diane Arbus

Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, L.I. 1959, by Diane Arbus

I suspect that 2019 eyes have a quite different response. Arbus is clearly curious about the margins of conventional society. But she is neither judgemental nor sentimental. She takes people for who they are, revealing their essential humanity. Her pictures have a strange beauty.

'I work from awkwardness. By that I mean I don't like to arrange things. If I stand in front of something, instead of arranging it, I arrange myself.'

I left the exhibition concluding that we are united by our flaws and foibles, our kinks and quirks. We all have idiosyncrasies. They’re what make us attractive, what make us human.

‘The thing that’s important to know is that you never know. You’re always sort of feeling your way.’

In the communication industry, we are constantly considering core consumers and bull’s-eye behaviour. We like to determine average users, typical targets. But these calculations often take us to the anodyne, bland and boring. They represent a filtered reality, an edited truth.

Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962  , by Diane Arbus

Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962 , by Diane Arbus

Arbus asks us to think again: Who is normal?

Surely in 2019 normal is diverse, irregular, bizarre and offbeat. It is strange and peculiar, different and contradictory, shifting and changeable. Normal is whatever we want it to be.

I’m reminded of a line I recently heard from jazz futurist Kamasi Washington: 

‘Diversity is not something to be tolerated, but something to be celebrated.’

In 1971 Diane Arbus took her own life. She had been suffering from depression, an illness that had also afflicted her mother. She was 48 years old.

In one of her pictures from 1960 a homeless man in a shabby overcoat, trilby hat and zip-up sweater holds a dollar bill to the viewer. It is as if to say: 

‘What’s this for? Is it really worth it?’ 


No. 223

The Hall of Mirrors: Should Advertising Offer Consumers Reflections of Themselves?


‘When I start out to make a fool of myself, there's very little can stop me. If I'd known where it would end, I'd never let anything start.’

Orson Welles, ’The Lady from Shanghai’

The 1947 movie classic ‘The Lady from Shanghai’ features an Irish Orson Welles caught up in a web of deceit woven by wealthy lawyer Everett Sloane and his wife, a curiously blonde Rita Hayworth.

The climax of the film takes place in a deserted amusement park, The Crazy House. ‘Stand up or give up,’ the arcade posters proclaim. In the Hall of Mirrors the three lead characters confront each other and a multiplicity of their own images and impressions. Neither they nor the audience can discern the real people from their reflections. Truth and falsehood are intertwined. It’s a cinematic tour de force.

When I first joined BBH in the early 1990s I was warned against ‘holding a mirror up to consumers.’ It was suggested that this is a lazy approach for any advertiser to take. ‘Holding a mirror up’ assumes that people enjoy seeing their own behaviours, attitudes, tastes and styles reflected back at them in brand communication; that they like to look at approximations of themselves in advertising; that brands are rewarded for acute observation of people’s musical preferences, fashion choices and figures of speech.

But who wants to encounter counterfeit copies of themselves? Who wants to be regarded as a type or category; to see their private codes and language broadcast for all to share?

So we took a different path. We preferred to shine a light on the brand; to let it present its best self to the world. We liked to let the brand speak.

Looking back on this position in the midst of the social media age, I can’t help wondering whether we were wrong all along. As is widely observed, nowadays we all inhabit echo chambers of our opinions, prejudices and world-views. We live in a Hall of Mirrors of our own making, endlessly self-publishing; craving affirmation and approval; seeking endorsement of how we look, what we do, what we feel, what we think; freely surrendering our personal data in our relentless quest for recognition and validation.

And consequently much of modern advertising pursues the ‘hold the mirror up to consumers’ approach. Our screens are filled with elegantly aspirational metropolitan executives, charmingly chaotic suburban families, fun-loving bobble-hatted youths.

I nonetheless find it difficult to recant. I remain convinced that brands have a responsibility to stand for something; that there is more integrity in selling than there is in pretending to share values, hopes and dreams; that rather than just reflecting consumers’ attitudes, we should seek to change them.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I doubt people will be seduced by this Hall of Mirrors for too long. Ultimately Narcissus’s infatuation with his own image destroyed him.

Back in the Crazy House, Sloane wearily directs his pistol at Hayward.

‘Of course, killing you is killing myself. But, you know, I'm pretty tired of both of us.’

In the shootout that follows, chaos and confusion reign. The mirrors shatter. The glass cascades in crystals all around.

No. 173

Gursky and the ‘Democratic Perspective’: Learning to Look Before We Leap

Tokyo Stock Exchange

Tokyo Stock Exchange

‘I am interested in the ideal typical approximation of everyday phenomena – in creating the essence of reality.’

I recently attended an excellent exhibition reviewing the work of Andreas Gursky (The Hayward Gallery, London, until 22 April).

Since the early 1980s Gursky has been creating photographic images that prompt us to consider humanity’s relationship with nature, our impact on the world and each other.

'I am never interested in the individual, but in the human species and its environment.'

Gursky has shown us people dwarfed by the vast natural world around them; the complex interaction between man and machines; the elaborate infrastructure of our industrialised landscape; the curious beauty that sometimes occurs when humanity imposes itself on the world; and the wholesale damage we have done to our planet and environment.

His monumental images present us with the swarming energy of the Tokyo Stock Exchange; the complex choreography of an F1 pit-stop; the dehumanising effect of a Vietnamese furniture factory; the tribal abandon of a gigantic Dortmund dancehall. He gives equal weight to the Tour de France and Toys R Us; to supermarkets and skyscrapers; to autobahn, airport and Amazon warehouse.

Salerno I

Salerno I

Gursky reflects on the world with a cool detachment. He seems withdrawn, rational, objective. Perhaps he is asking us to think rather than feel; to properly consider the systems, patterns and relationships that rule our lives and shape our world.

'I stand at a distance, like a person who comes from another world.' 

Gursky’s work often employs advanced digital and post-production techniques. He uses cranes, sophisticated software and satellite cameras. His images are carefully orchestrated and arranged.

‘Reality can only be shown by constructing it… Montage and manipulation bring us closer to the truth.’

This inclination to convey constructed rather than documentary reality resonates with us in the commercial world. We are generally comfortable with artifice and abstraction, distillation and editing, if they serve to communicate a brand essence or human truth.

We could nonetheless learn something from what Gursky calls his ‘democratic perspective.’ He consciously creates images that are uniformly sharp and clear. There is none of the foreshortening or depth of field to which we are accustomed from conventional photography or image making. Everything is high-def, hyper-real. Everything is in focus.

‘Figuratively speaking, what I create is a world without hierarchy, in which all the pictorial elements are as important as each other.’

As a result when we regard a Gursky image, and get past the initial sense of wonder, our eyes roam freely, exploring every detail, examining every corner.

By contrast, when we in the field of marketing and communications consider a sector, we tend pretty quickly to apply instinct and intuition to the data that presents itself to us. We hastily seek narrative, purpose and direction. We rush to find a focal point.

Sometimes perhaps we leap too soon.

Over the years I sat in a good many creative reviews with John Hegarty and I was struck by his tendency in the early stages of the process to be open-minded about different routes and possibilities. He’d let teams run with a variety of thoughts, exploring diverse avenues and approaches. He seemed reluctant to close things down too quickly. At the outset he had a ‘democratic perspective.’ Only later in creative development did he settle on a particular theme and idea. Only then did he demand singular focus.



I’m sure strategy works the same way. When we embark on a task we would do well to allow ourselves time to consider all the options; to explore and experiment; to review the whole picture, the panorama of perspectives; to look before we leap.

But, having said all this, we should never be slave to the method. We should always listen to our instincts.

In 2017 Gursky created a work inspired by an image taken on an iPhone through the window of a moving car. ‘Utah’ depicts homes, sheds and caravans at the freeway’s edge, speeding past us as we proceed on our way. They are largely out of focus. They are all a blur.

No. 171