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The Language of Diane Arbus

In response to:

The Art of Difference from the June 8, 2017 issue

To the Editors:

In an otherwise characteristically sensitive piece on Diane Arbus [“The Art of Difference,” NYR, June 8], Hilton Als repeats without qualification and as a truism that Diane Arbus “used the word ‘freaks’ to describe [her] subjects….” While often repeated, and in this case possibly unintentional in the implicit breadth of its meaning, nothing could be further from the truth, and the promulgation of the idea harms the reputations of both the photographer and the writer.

Als makes it clear that he objects to the use of the word “freaks,” which he finds disparaging, but he seems to have missed the precision of Arbus’s language.

Although Arbus did say that she “adored freaks,” and that they made her feel “a mixture of shame and awe,” she was using the term in a highly specific and tightly limited sense. As she herself was at pains to point out, she used the term “freak” solely to describe persons with bizarre physical abnormalities who made a living by means of the commercial exploitation of those abnormalities, namely people who worked in Freak Shows. This group did include the giant Eddie Carmel, the dwarf Lauro Morales, and the midget friends at home, but it did not include all giants, all dwarfs, or all midgets, or all the thousands of other people she photographed.

What a blessing for her that she is dead. Imagine knowing that one’s life’s work, which had been devoted to exploring the myriad permutations of what it is to be human, was frequently summed up with a simple, slang, divisive insult for which one was then erroneously given credit.

Neil Selkirk
New York City

Hilton Als replies:

If you say so.