Stephen Sewell has written a superb play Arbus & West in which he imagines the hours that Mae West and Diane Arbus spent together in 1960s when Diane Arbus went to Mae West’s Ravenswood apartment to photograph her. The play slowly reveals the differences between the women, the wealth that cushioned Arbus’s world as she grew up and the hard-edged life that was Mae West’s before fame changed her circumstances. As Arbus was turning her back on her fortune and following her passion to photograph the marginalised and the shunned, the ordinary and those considered not worthy of a photographer’s lens, West was clinging not only to the fame that she’d lived and breathed for years but the fantasy of her own immortality.
This excellent dialogue between the women made me seek out the photographs that Diane Arbus took over her too-short career. I’ve put some favourites here, but there are many more, many images I didn’t realise I already knew.
Because of Arbus’s true belief in the realness of those who, as she said through Steven Sewell’s imagination, had had the worst happen to them already, she was interested in capturing their lives. Finding them more fascinating, more authentic and more worthy of recording, she was part of a new vanguard that used photography to record all that was around her rather than just the rich and glamourous.
“A photograph,” Arbus said, “is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.”