It’s not certain, but likely that her initial viewing of the revival showing of Freaks (1932) in 1959 strongly influenced Diane Arbus’ subsequent focus on photographing not only the physically deformed but a long string of societal outcasts.
Arbus faced significant resistance during her lifetime in gaining acceptance for her unsparing portraits of deformities, transvestites, strippers, street personalities, and ordinary people captured in arresting moments. Even following her suicide in 1971, when she had gained some measure of respect within the arts community, it was difficult for her admirers to mount an exhibition of her work. She is not without her critics today.
One of the charges leveled against Arbus is that her work exploited and demeaned her subjects. The same charge has been made against Freaks. This is despite the fact that many of Arbus’ subjects were happy with her work and that many of the performers in Freaks, interviewed years later, painted their experience on the film as positive.
Taking that into account, and acknowledging that Freaks is generally a sympathetic portrayal of sideshow performers where the “normal” people are the monsters, you can’t escape the truth that in both cases, deformity and ugliness give these important works their power.
Freaks is one of the greatest horror movies of all time, and it would not have been so if it had relied on putty appliances, costumes, or lighting tricks to change normal actors into freaks. For most of it’s running time, the freaks are portrayed in ordinary domestic situations: playing cards, washing clothes, or discussing circus business. But in the final act, when they turn on the evil bare-back rider and her accomplice the strongman, it is their alieness that supplies the chills.
Arbus’ work plays the same card. My personal favorite Arbus photograph: “Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park” seems somewhat staged, which lends credence to the idea that she exploited her subjects, but it’s the final effect which matters. And ultimately, with any piece of art, including Freaks, it is the final effect that should be judged, not the manner of its creation or the feelings of the participants.
Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot. It was one of the first things I photographed and it had a terrific kind of excitement for me. I just used to adore them. I still do adore some of them. I don’t quite mean they’re my best friends but they made me feel a mixture of shame and awe. - Diane Arbus