At the time of her suicide in 1971, the photographer Diane Arbus was working on a very personal set of pictures, most of which have never before been published in this country. Tim Hilton introduces them

WHEN THE American photographer Diane Arbus died in 1971, at the early age of 48, she left one especially precious set of pictures. It contained photographs that she had been taking in the previous two years at homes for the mentally retarded. Some of the most telling of these prints have not previously been published. Looking today at the pictures, now collected in book form, we wonder at the nature of Arbus's feelings - and then we wonder at our own, for these strange photographs are not about time and place, but concern the mysteries of humanity.

"Finally what I've been searching for," Arbus wrote when the prints emerged from her darkroom. She did not say much more about them, yet her allusion to finality must be significant. The photographs not only extend but complete her short, remarkable artistic career. A native New Yorker, Arbus studied under Lisette Model - a vital link both with European camerawork and pre- war American documentary styles - in the late 1950s. Her first published photographs ("The Vertical Journey") appeared in Esquire in 1960. She then worked as a freelance for such magazines as Harper's Bazaar, Glamour and Show, while also teaching photography at the Rhode Island School of Design and at the Cooper Union.

Therefore she had a wide experience of her craft. Although she is famous as the photographer of freaks and social misfits, Arbus was also concerned with fashion, portraiture and street photography. Certainly dwarfs, transvestites and twisted adolescents were prominent in her work, and she must have sought them out rather than encountering them by chance. But for what reason did she seek out people who were monstrously disadvantaged? Not, we now understand, because these subjects were so striking and half-forbidden. She approached them because her ambition was to become a photographer of the human condition.

That is the subject of these pictures, and probably the reason why Arbus could not bring herself to title them. Her previous works were known by flat descriptions like "A Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents in the Bronx" or "Loser at a Diaper Derby". Her last pictures, though, might have been diminished by added words. For once, the word "untitled" seems both exact and eloquent. In the last two years of her life Arbus's photography went beyond documentary, the mode that gives us locations and facts. And her subjects are themselves "untitled". They have no property, no home, no hold on the world, only the experience of their own existence. It almost seems they have no names.

Arbus visited and revisited the "residences" she had discovered every couple of months. One guesses that she often made herself a guest at times of minor institutional celebrations. At the residences there were occasional dances. In summertime there were picnics. The autumn was marked by Thanksgiving and Hallowe'en - hence, no doubt, the masks that the patients wear. The meaning of any festival was surely beyond the intellectual range of the people we see here. They still dress up and play. They know that something special is going on, that this day or that day is not like other days. And, perhaps above all, they pose.

Or rather, give themselves to being seen. Their subnormality absolves them from the normal adult's instinctive responses to another person's gaze. Arbus's subjects have a crazy unaffectedness. This makes the observations of her camera distant, but not dispassionate. The camera exhibits a kind of awe that beings on earth could have any kind of social life. This is not an original vision. We have seen it before, in Goya. The Spanish painter must have been an influence on Arbus's last photographs. Where else do we find images that so haunt us and unsettle our notions of rational civilisation?

! 'Diane Arbus: Untitled' (Thames & Hudson, pounds 36) is published on 25 Sept.

Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?