Crisp Ellert Guest Speaker discusses Diane Arbus Photography

By Rebecca Snowdale |
Marcella Matthaei spoke at the Crisp-Ellert Art Museum last Wednesday on her experiences being photographed by the renown Diane Arbus as a child.

Diane Arbus, Matthaei says, is what threw photography in the late 1950’s on it’s head. While most other photographers at the time were snapping shots of sleeping dogs and happy people, Arbus was taking provocative and unsettling portraits of modern Americans. Despite the fact that Arbus did not want to be known as “the photographer of freaks,” her avant-garde photography has inescapably deemed her as such.

In the winter of 1969, the Matthaei household was in need of a photographer for an annual family shoot. Since the Matthaei’s were upper-class Manhattan residents, they made a bold move and hired Arbus to shoot the portraits. Among the hundreds of photographs shot throughout the weekend was a striking portrait of Marcella, standing with her shoulders pulled back in a ruffled sundress, her long hair and bangs just barely covering the cryptic, intense look in her eyes.

The photo was taken when Matthaei was age 11, and yielded one of Arbus’ better known photos. The untitled picture is featured on the front cover of her collection book, “Family Albums”, which features over 300 photographs of the Matthaei household’s family photographs. Arbus, as Matthaei says, believes that “all families are creepy in a way.”

“She had tremendous guts,” says Matthaei on Arbus’ photography. “Given the time, and given that she was a woman, photographing at a museum caliber was an incredible achievement.” Matthaei describes Arbus as a modest, shy and unassuming individual who did not attempt to capture beauty or nature as other photographers of the 1950s did.

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