Diane Arbus killed herself, aged 48, on 26 July 1971. On the 40th anniversary of her death, it’s worth reconsidering her artistic legacy. Her work remains problematic for many viewers because she transgressed the traditional boundaries of portraiture, making pictures of circus and sideshow “freaks”, many of whom she formed lasting friendships with.
If Arbus undoubtedly felt at home among the outsiders she photographed, she also experienced a frisson of guilty pleasure when photographing them. ‘There’s some thrill in going to a sideshow,’ she once confessed of her nocturnal visits to the circus tents of Coney Island, where performers were still earning a living in the 1960s. ‘I felt a mixture of shame and awe.’”