Diane Arbus

The backwards man in his hotel room, N.Y.C. 1961

1961, printed after 1971

Sorry, copyright restrictions prevent us from showing this object here

Not on display

Diane Arbus 1923–1971
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Image: 215 × 143 mm
frame: 486 × 383 × 22 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008


The backwards man in his hotel room, N.Y.C. 1961 1961 is a black and white photograph by the American photographer Diane Arbus. It depicts the contortionist Joe Allen standing in profile in a small, modest hotel room. Allen is dressed in a shirt and tie, with suit trousers, shined leather shoes and a translucent plastic rain jacket, which reveals the misalignment of his body. From the waist up he faces to left, while his feet and legs are oriented in the opposite direction. His upper body is framed by the white blind that is drawn over the window behind him, and his feet are firmly planted on a small rug. The setting is cluttered, with a single bare bulb hanging from the ceiling at the top left of the frame, which creates a stark contrast between light and shadow across the room.

Diane Arbus shot this photograph in the lower east side of Manhattan at an early stage in her career as an art photographer, which she took up after she had stopped working in commercial fashion photography in 1956. Arbus shot Allen using a small format hand-held 35 mm Nikon SLR camera, resulting in blurred, grainy image. Arbus described how ‘in the beginning of photographing I used to make very grainy things. I’d be fascinated by what the grain did because it would make a kind of tapestry of all these little dots and everything would be translated into this medium of dots … you were dealing mostly in dark and light not so much in flesh and blood’ (Diane Arbus, Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph, New York 1972, p.59). Through this technique Arbus captured the grit and mystery of New York City and its dark, unexplored corners, rather than focusing on Allen as a subject as she did in her later portraits, made using a heavier 2¼ twin-lens reflex Rolleiflex camera.

The backwards man in his hotel room, N.Y.C. 1961 1961 was taken while Arbus was researching and gathering photographs for her photo-essay ‘The Full Circle’, published in Harper’s Bazaar in November 1961 (see Southall 2004, p.157). This research took her to Hubert’s Dime Museum and Flea Circus on 42nd Street in Manhattan, which had a basement ‘freak show’ featuring a number of performers whom she came to photograph, such as Jack Dracula (Jack Dracula, the Marked Man, N.Y.C. 1961, Tate AR00570), as well as the ‘backwards man’ seen in this image. Throughout 1961 Arbus continued to explore venues for the expression and exhibition of strangeness and unconventionality including freak shows, carnivals, parks, Coney Island, Central Park and Times Square.

The theme of eccentricity and the spaces in which it becomes manifest are central to Arbus’s photographic work. In 1958 she began exploring such subcultures, commenting in 1972 that,

freaks was [sic] a thing I photographed a lot. It was one of the first things I photographed and it had a terrific kind of excitement for me. I just used to adore them. I still do adore some of them. I don’t quite mean they’re my best friends but they made me feel a mixture of shame and awe. There’s a quality of legend about freaks. Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.
(Quoted in Diane Arbus and Doon Arbus, Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph, New York 1997, p.3.)

Arbus became personally acquainted with many of the performers she met, such as Allen and Andrew Ratoucheff (Russian midget friends in a living room on 100th Street, N.Y.C. 1963 1963 Tate AR00529) whom she photographed a decade earlier for her photo-essay ‘The Vertical Journey’ (Sussman and Arbus 2011, p.41). Writing of Allen in her personal Appointment Notebook, Arbus that, ‘Joe Allen is a metaphor for human destiny – walking blind into the future with an eye on the past,’ (quoted in Sussman and Arbus 2011, p.31). While Arbus highlights the strangeness of Allen’s physicality in this photograph, she does not ostracise him or hold him in disdain for his difference. Instead she focuses on him with fascination, while problematising the spectacle of the ‘freak show’ to reveal a performer in his own private space.

Further reading
Sandra Phillips, ‘The Question of Belief’, in Diane Arbus: Revelations, exhibition catalogue, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco 2003, pp.50–67.
Thomas W. Southall, ‘The Magazine Years, 1960–1971’, in Thomas W. Southall (ed.), Diane Arbus: Magazine Work, New York 2004, pp.156–60.
Elisabeth Sussman and Doon Arbus, Diane Arbus: A Chronology, New York 2011.

Tessa Rosenstein
The University of Edinburgh
October, 2015

The University of Edinburgh is a research partner of ARTIST ROOMS.

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