Aha Moment: Diane Arbus

Neil Selkirk is an accomplished portrait photographer. He began his career in London during the swinging 1960s, when being a magazine photographer meant wild parties, fancy cars, and beautiful girls. 

While assisting the photographer Richard Avedon on a shoot, he encountered a photograph by Diane Arbus: “A Family One Evening in a Nudist Camp, Pennsylvania, 1965.” Selkirk was shocked by the frankness of the subjects — neither slim nor attractive yet absolutely comfortable in their nakedness. “I just thought it was the weirdest thing I’d ever seen in my life,” he remembers. “I was terrified. I actually thought about running out the door into the street and never coming back.”

Arbus spent her career creating portraits of misfits, disabled people, and other outsiders. When Selkirk eventually met Arbus, he was taken with the generous, curious manner she had with everyone she met. “People gave themselves to Diane,” he explains. “What she tended to photograph was their comfort with the fact that she was photographing them. Nobody felt exploited.” 

After he studied with Arbus, Selkirk found himself transformed. “I realized that the photographer that I had been when I arrived in the United States no longer existed at all. I was completely incapable of embellishing anything. I was solely absorbed with the photograph as a document.”

After Arbus’ death, Selkirk worked with her estate as the only authorized printer of her photographs. And her portrait of nudists remains the only print that he owns himself: “It insists that you dispassionately observe — that that is enough.”