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 Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
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.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'