Two Psychological Approaches to Photography

America's two greatest photographers used diametrically different methods/styles

Posted Jul 14, 2016

We are in the midst of revivals of America's two greatest photographers: Diane Arbus and Robert Frank. Both took photos that penetrated Americans and American life in previously inconceivable ways.  Both were vilified during their careers and are now canonized as seminal geniuses, earthly saints.

Arbus, who committed suicide in 1971 at age 48, is the subject of a new biography (Arthur Lubow’s Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer) and Metropolitan Museum exhibit.  Within 15 months of her death, Arbus was exhibited at the Venice Biennale and had a retrospective at MoMA that drew breathless throngs.  The accompanying program for the MoMA exhibit is the best-selling book of photography ever.

Robert Frank, still actively working at age 91, is the subject of a new documentary (Laura Israel's Don't Blink—Robert Frank).  Although Frank shifted decades ago to film making, his 1958 book, The Americans, comprising 83 photographs taken across the United States soon after he moved to New York, revolutionized photography.  In 2009-2010, commemorating the 50th anniversary of The Americans, the Met exhibited all 83 photographs to overflow crowds.

Both Arbus and Frank were born Jewish—Arbus to an affluent New York family that owned a chain of department stores, Frank in Zurich to a father who was made stateless by the Nazis.  Although Arbus led a privileged and sheltered childhood, she married at 18, moved out from under her parents, and strove to support herself and her two daughters in New York through photography with intermittent success.

Frank lived the quintessential post-War New York existence on next to nothing.  He now splits his time between a fairly threadbare New York apartment and an isolated house in Nova Scotia (he lives with his romantic partner, artist June Leaf).  Both Arbus and Frank, in order to support themselves, were fashion photographers before going out on their own.  Ironically, while the works about both artists noted that they sold pictures for $25-$50 during their hay days, originals of their photographs now sell for amounts approaching a half-million dollars.

Arbus and Frank knew and admired each other in New York. Both idolized, and were encouraged and nurtured, by the legendary American photographer, Walker Evans, who took the photos that accompanied James Agee's text in their classic Great Depression book about three families of tenant farmers, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Fortune magazine, which commissioned Evans' and Agee's work, refused to publish it in the magazine.  Similarly, Arbus's work was often unpublishable, and both her and Frank's pictures were critically assailed.  Put simply, they took pictures of parts of America that people didn't want to see. 

Arbus specialized in pictures of "freaks," but also of ordinary, even prominent, people's "freaky" sides, while Frank photographed the underside of the American dream among poor blacks and prejudiced whites (Frank was jailed in Arkansas for, well, being Jewish).

But, beyond their mutual admiration and their shared admiration of Evans, and their taking previously unimaginable pictures, Arbus and Frank had exactly opposite approaches to picture taking. 

For Arbus, photography was a way to strip away the masks that people wore to get to their core beings, the underside of individual existence. 

Frank wanted to display the underside of the American dream, that accepted post-War optimistic picture of happy, prosperous America and Americans.

(In many ways Frank's later film work was even more radical, out of synch, and noncommercial than his earlier photography. Mick Jagger on Frank's unreleased film about the Stones: "Robert, it's a great f'in film, but if we released it they'd never let us back in the country." He continued to live on the artistic edge that may have killed Arbus.)

Arbus, according to MoMA's director of photography, "wanted to know people, almost in a biblical sense.” Towards this end she would photograph subjects for hours, go home with them, and, well, sleep with them—men, women, couples, sailors she met on buses. (This may have been unsustainable, causing her suicide.  Arbus contracted hepatitis B and discovered that her last mentor was having an affair with her daughter.)

Frank didn't want to know his subjects, preferring to rely on his first quick, surprise shot of them.  "Why would I want to talk to them?" he asks in the film.  They were archetypes, not individuals whose souls he wanted to plumb.

Ironically, their disparate approaches left both Arbus and Frank extremely isolated, even while each was at the center of a vibrant artistic and intellectual cultural world.  For Arbus, according to Alex Mar in New York magazine, "while this flinging herself at the world drove her deeper into her new identity as an explorer of the underground, it also seems to have served as a barrier between herself and individuals. She was sampling everything she could, then moving on."

Even though Frank chronicles his many friends and associates in the movie (Allen Ginsberg, the Rolling Stones, his technical assistants), and his long creative partnership with Leaf, his two children died tragically and are only shown through old clips (their mother—like Arbus, Frank was only married, and divorced, once—only through old stills).  Nonetheless, in the documentary, Frank comes across as self-absorbed and alone.

Perhaps this was the creative, artistic fate of these two great geniuses.