Diane Arbus (March 14, 1923 – July 26, 1971) was an American photographer. Arbus worked to normalize marginalized groups and highlight the importance of proper representation of all people. She worked with a wide range of subjects including; strippers, carnival performers, nudists, dwarves, children, mothers, couples, older adults, and middle-class families. She photographed her subjects in familiar settings: their homes, on the street, in the workplace, in the park. “She is noted for expanding notions of acceptable subject matter and violates canons of the appropriate distance between photographer and subject. By befriending, not objectifying her subjects, she was able to capture in her work a rare psychological intensity.” In his 2003 New York Times Magazine article, “Arbus Reconsidered,” Arthur Lubow states, “She was fascinated by people who were visibly creating their own identities—cross-dressers, nudists, sideshow performers, tattooed men, the nouveaux riches, the movie-star fans—and by those who were trapped in a uniform that no longer provided any security or comfort.” Michael Kimmelman writes in his review of the exhibition Diane Arbus Revelations, that her work “transformed the art of photography (Arbus is everywhere, for better and worse, in the work of artists today who make photographs)”.
In her lifetime she achieved some recognition and renown with the publication, beginning in 1960, of photographs in such magazines as Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, London’s Sunday Times Magazine, and Artforum. In 1963 the Guggenheim Foundation awarded Arbus a fellowship for her proposal entitled, “American Rites, Manners and Customs”. She was awarded a renewal of her fellowship in 1966. John Szarkowski, the director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City from 1962 to 1991, championed her work and included it in his 1967 exhibit New Documents along with the work of Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand. Her photographs were also included in a number of other major group shows.
In 1972, a year after her suicide, Arbus became the first photographer to be included in the Venice Biennale where her photographs were “the overwhelming sensation of the American Pavilion” and “extremely powerful and very strange.”
The first major retrospective of Arbus’ work was held in 1972 at MoMA, organized by Szarkowski. The retrospective garnered the highest attendance of any exhibition in MoMA’s history to date. Millions viewed travelling exhibitions of her work from 1972 to 1979. The book accompanying the exhibition, Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph, edited by Doon Arbus and Marvin Israel and first published in 1972 has never been out of print.
Arbus was born Diane Nemerov to David Nemerov and Gertrude Russek Nemerov, a Jewish couple – immigrants from Soviet Russia – who lived in New York City and owned Russeks, a Fifth Avenue department store. Because of her family’s wealth, Arbus was insulated from the effects of the Great Depression while growing up in the 1930s. Her father became a painter after retiring from Russeks. Her younger sister became a sculptor and designer, and her older brother, the poet Howard Nemerov, taught English at Washington University in St. Louis and was appointed United States Poet Laureate. Howard’s son is the Americanist art historian Alexander Nemerov.
Arbus’s parents were not deeply involved in raising their children, who were overseen by maids and governesses. Her mother had a busy social life and underwent a period of clinical depression for approximately a year, then recovered, and her father was busy with work. She separated herself from her family and her lavish childhood.
Arbus attended the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, a prep school. In 1941, at the age of 18, she married her childhood sweetheart, Allan Arbus, whom she had dated since age 14. Their daughter Doon, who would become a writer, was born in 1945; their daughter Amy, who would become a photographer, was born in 1954. Arbus and her husband worked together in commercial photography from 1946 to 1956, but Allan remained very supportive of her work even after leaving the business and began an independent relationship to photography.
Arbus and her husband separated in 1959, although they maintained a close friendship. The couple also continued to share a darkroom, where Allan’s studio assistants processed her negatives, and she printed her work. The couple divorced in 1969 when he moved to California to pursue acting. He was popularly known for his role as Dr. Sidney Freedman on the television show MAS*H. Before his move to California, Allan set up her darkroom, and they thereafter maintained a long correspondence.
In late 1959, Arbus began a relationship with the art director and painter Marvin Israel that would last until her death. All the while, he remained married to Margaret Ponce Israel, an accomplished mixed-media artist. Marvin Israel both spurred Arbus creatively and championed her work, encouraging her to create her first portfolio. Among other photographers and artists she befriended, Arbus was close to photographer Richard Avedon; he was approximately the same age, his family had also run a Fifth Avenue department store, and many of his photographs were also characterized by detailed frontal poses.
Arbus received her first camera, a Graflex, from Allan shortly after they married. Shortly thereafter, she enrolled in classes with photographer Berenice Abbott. The Arbuses’ interests in photography led them, in 1941, to visit the gallery of Alfred Stieglitz, and learn about the photographers Mathew Brady, Timothy O’Sullivan, Paul Strand, Bill Brandt, and Eugène Atget. In the early 1940s, Diane’s father employed them to take photographs of the department store’s advertisements. Allan was a photographer for the U.S. Army Signal Corps in World War II.
In 1946, after the war, the Arbuses began a commercial photography business called “Diane & Allan Arbus”, with Diane as art director and Allan as the photographer. She would come up with the concepts for their shoots and then take care of the models. She grew dissatisfied with this role, a role even her husband thought was “demeaning”. They contributed to Glamour, Seventeen, Vogue, and other magazines even though “they both hated the fashion world.” Despite over 200 pages of their fashion editorial in Glamour, and over 80 pages in Vogue, the Arbuses’ fashion photography has been described as of “middling quality.” Edward Steichen’s noted 1955 photography exhibition, The Family of Man, did include a photograph by the Arbuses of a father and son reading a newspaper.
She studied briefly with Alexey Brodovich in 1954. However, it was her studies with Lisette Model, which began in 1956, that encouraged Arbus to focus exclusively on her own work. That year Arbus quit the commercial photography business and began numbering her negatives. (Her last known negative was labelled #7459.) Based on Model’s advice, Arbus avoided loading film in the camera as an exercise in truly seeing. Arbus also credits Model with making it clear to her that “the more specific you are, the more general it’ll be.”
By 1956 she worked with a 35mm Nikon, wandering the streets of New York City and meeting her subjects largely, though not always, by chance. The idea of personal identity as socially constructed is one that Arbus came back to, whether it be performers, women and men wearing makeup, or a literal mask obstructing one’s face. Critics have speculated that the choices in her subjects reflected her own identity issues, for she said that the only thing she suffered from as a child was never having felt adversity. This evolved into a longing for things that money couldn’t buy, such as experiences in the underground social world. She is often praised for her sympathy for these subjects, a quality which is not immediately understood through the images themselves, but through her writing and the testimonies of the men and women she portrayed. A few years later, in 1958 she began making lists of who and what she was interested in photographing. She began photographing on assignment for magazines such as Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, and The Sunday Times Magazine in 1959.
Around 1962, Arbus switched from a 35mm Nikon camera which produced the grainy rectangular images characteristic of her post-studio work to a twin-lens reflex Rolleiflex camera which produced more detailed square images. She explained this transition by saying “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…But when I’d been working for a while with all these dots, I suddenly wanted terribly to get through there. I wanted to see the real differences between things… I began to get terribly hyped on clarity.” In 1964, Arbus began using a 2-1/4 Mamiyaflex camera with flash in addition to the Rolleiflex.
Arbus’s style is said to be “direct and unadorned, a frontal portrait centred in a square format. Her pioneering use of flash in daylight isolated the subjects from the background, contributing to the photos’ surreal quality.” Her methods included establishing a strong personal relationship with her subjects and re-photographing some of them over many years.
In spite of being widely published and achieving some artistic recognition, Arbus struggled to support herself through her work. “During her lifetime, there was no market for collecting photographs as works of art, and her prints usually sold for $100 or less.” It is evident from her correspondence that lack of money was a persistent concern.
In 1963, Arbus was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for a project on “American rites, manners, and customs”; the fellowship was renewed in 1966.
Throughout the 1960s, Arbus supported herself largely by taking magazine assignments and commissions. For example, in 1968 she shot documentary photographs of poor sharecroppers in rural South Carolina (for Esquire magazine). In 1969 a rich and prominent actor and theatre owner, Konrad Matthaei, and his wife, Gay, commissioned Arbus to photograph a family Christmas gathering. During her career, Arbus photographed Mae West, Ozzie Nelson and Harriet Nelson, Bennet Cerf, atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, Norman Mailer, Jayne Mansfield, Eugene McCarthy, billionaire H. L. Hunt, Gloria Vanderbilt’s baby, Anderson Cooper, Coretta Scott King, and Marguerite Oswald (Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother). In general, her magazine assignments decreased as her fame as an artist increased. Szarkowski hired Arbus in 1970 to research an exhibition on photojournalism called “From the Picture Press”; it included many photographs by Weegee whose work Arbus admired. She also taught photography at the Parsons School of Design and the Cooper Union in New York City, and the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island.
Late in her career, The Metropolitan Museum of Art indicated to her that they would buy three of her photographs for $75 each, but citing a lack of funds, purchased only two. As she wrote to Allan Arbus, “So I guess being poor is no disgrace.”
Beginning in 1969 Arbus undertook a series of photographs of people at New Jersey residences for the developmentally and intellectually disabled, posthumously named Untitled. Arbus returned to several facilities repeatedly for Halloween parties, picnics, and dances. In a letter to Allan Arbus dated November 28, 1969, she described these photographs as “lyric and tender and pretty.”
Artforum published six photographs, including a cover image, from Arbus’s portfolio, A box of ten photographs, in May 1971. After his encounter with Arbus and the portfolio, Philip Leider, then editor in chief of Artforum and a photography sceptic, admitted, “With Diane Arbus, one could find oneself interested in photography or not, but one could no longer . . . deny its status as art.” She was the first photographer to be featured in Artforum and “Leider’s admission of Arbus into this critical bastion of late modernism was instrumental in shifting the perception of photography and ushering its acceptance into the realm of ‘serious’ art.”
The first major exhibition of her photographs occurred at the Museum of Modern Art in the influential New Documents (1967) alongside the work of Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander, curated by John Szarkowski. New Documents, which drew almost 250,000 visitors demonstrated Arbus’s interest in what Szarkowski referred to as society’s “frailties” and presented what he described as “a new generation of documentary photographers…whose aim has been not to reform life but to know it, “described elsewhere as “photography that emphasized the pathos and conflicts of modern life presented without editorializing or sentimentalizing but with a critical, observant eye.” The show was polarizing, receiving both praise and criticism, with some identifying Arbus as a disinterested voyeur and others praising her for her evident empathy with her subjects.
In 2018, The New York Times published a belated obituary of Arbus as part of the Overlooked history project. The Smithsonian American Art Museum housed an exclusive exhibit from April 6, 2018, to January 27, 2019, that featured one of Arbus’ portfolios, A box of ten photographs. The SAAM is the only museum currently displaying the work. The collection is “one of just four complete editions that Arbus printed and annotated. The three other editions—the artist never executed her plan to make 50—are held privately”. The Smithsonian edition was made for Bea Feitler, an art director who both employed and befriended Arbus. After Feitler’s death, Baltimore collector G.H. Dalsheimer bought her portfolio from Sotheby’s in 1982 for $42,900. The SAAM then bought it from Dalsheimer in 1986. The portfolio was put away in the museum’s collection, until 2018.
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