This was undoubtedly the case; Diane had always longed to scrutinize the perverse, the alienated, the extreme—ever since her mother forbade The Limelight coffeehouse/gallery opened in 1954, the brainchild of Helen Gee, and it was the first gallery anywhere in America devoted exclusively to showing photographs. White walls and unaffected lighting were hallmarks of the Limelight, as were the excellent coffee and pastries served until one a.m. The record of exhibitions during its seven years was, according to Peter Bunnell, “a virtual international report on the state of the [photographer’s] art ten years after the war.” Shows included such names as Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, Robert Capa, the Westons, Bert Stern, Louis Faurer, Elliott Erwitt, Jerome Liebling, Robert Frank, Gordon Parks, Cartier-Bresson. A good sale was $25 a picture. The Limelight was forced to close in 1961.
Diane Arbus was not the first photographer to photograph “the forbidden” or “evil subject matter.”
In the 1880s American amateur photographers photographed their dead babies and Bellocq took portraits in a New Orleans whorehouse. During the 1920s Brassai descended into the Paris after-hours cafes and brothels and photographed whores douching after sex.
Weegee’s special target in the 1940s according to Weegee expert John Coplans was “people convulsed with pain or terror…people in extreme situations,” which Weegee documented for the New York Daily News. He recorded “appalling bloody scenes,” scenes full of gore and violence, and his work is “pitiless”; “there’s a demonic edge” to it, an almost cruel humor. He “invaded people’s lives” with his camera (later Diane was accused of that), and he could focus on a “lurid moment and get personal satisfaction from it.”
Diane revered Weegee, but she herself often vacillated between intimacy and distance, between identifying with and being alienated from her subjects. (Thus, her pictures of hookers and their clients taken in the 1960s and never published are said to be more restricted and harder to look at than Weegee—because they’re just the subject and Arbus reflected in the image. When you look at her pictures, you see not only the relaxed self-image produced by the sitter but often the astonishment, terror, and fascination of Diane herself.)