The Photographer That Changed My Life

A black and white photo of the Diane Arbus exhibition poster at the AGO

I can’t even remember what year it was but I do remember feeling like I’d been punched in the heart when I stumbled across the photo of a little boy holding a grenade in his disfigured hand, his face a twisted mask.

Little did I know at the time that the grenade was a toy, and the boy was not disfigured but merely doing what the photographer had told him…to make a face. That was when I realized the true power of a photograph. And, since that day I have been a fan of Diane Arbus’s work.

I think every working photographer can name their greatest influence. The iconic photographer who made them want to pick up a camera, who made photography real to them. For me, it was Arbus. And, in a very simple and profound way, her work changed my life.

In February 2016 I picked up the arts section of The Toronto Star that someone had left on a cafe table. From the front page of the section a photo screamed out at me. I recognized it immediately as one of Arbus’s and read that the AGO was holding an exhibition called Outsiders: American Photography and Film, 1950s-1980s featuring works from Diane Arbus, Gordon Parks, Nan Goldin, Danny Lyon, Garry Winogrand, and filmmakers Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie, Kenneth Anger, Shirley Clarke, and Marie Menken, and those who attended Casa Susanna.

On the spot, I told Chuck we had to see it. We had to go. I immediately booked tickets and for the next week it was all I could think about. I booked a room at The Breakers in Cobourg (we were still living in Sudbury at the time) so we could spend as much time as possible at the exhibit and even go back the next day if we wanted to.

On March 3, 2016 I stood in front of a wall of Diane Arbus’s work, mesmerized. At that moment, my life changed. I had to go back home to Cobourg. It was time. And, in October of that year, we did. We packed up everything, closed the business, sold the house, and said goodbye to the past 30 years of our lives. Four years later, not one single regret.

This past February, in the Year of the Great Covid Pandemic, the AGO brought in a solo exhibition, Diane Arbus: Photographs, 1956-1971 and of course, we went. Three times. I would have gone again if the AGO wasn’t shut down in the face of the pandemic.

Arbus isn’t for everyone. But everyone will have their own Arbus…that one photographer who’s works reach out and heart punch you, that you can’t seem to get enough of, who shoots in a way that you viscerally and instinctively understand and admire, who changes your life.

If you haven’t found yours yet, please, don’t stop looking.