Last Word: Bending the Lens

Teaching Students to Look Deeper

For years I’ve been introducing students in my college-level fine-arts courses to the photographs of Diane Arbus (1923–71). Old friends of mine by now, the images created by this “photographer of freaks” have intrigued me since I was an undergraduate myself. There’s the frustrated little boy in Central Park clutching a toy grenade and looking as if someone’s pulled the pin on his own explosive core; the circus giant folded origami-style into his terrified parents’ tiny living room for fear he’ll scrape the ceiling; the tattooed carny with x-ray eyes who could be a real-life double for Ray Bradbury’s Illustrated Man. There are, as well, the assorted prostitutes, strippers, and drag queens whose lives Arbus described as having the “quality of legend,” the men with shaved bodies and tucked-away genitals pretending to be women and the women with plastic bodies and tucked-away souls pretending to be young. Together they form a communion of beings as ethereal as saints, whose lovely, silver-tone relics seem at home under glass.

Projected onto a lecture-room wall, their dearness vanishes. No longer objects to be held and studied like jewelry, the photos assume the scale of billboard graphics, which one might think would heighten their power. Lately, however, my students seem less responsive to Arbus’s pictures than they once were, even if I try nudging them in the direction of honest emotion with a few lines from...

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About the Author

Michael E. DeSanctis is professor of fine arts and director of the Honors Program at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania. He writes widely as a designer/consultant on Catholic church architecture and is the author of Building from Belief: Advance, Retreat, and Compromise in the Remaking of Catholic Church Architecture (Liturgical Press, 2004).