Diane Arbus

(please note: due to a strict handling of copyright restrictions by the estate of Diane Arbus some links to photographs might not work properly anymore)


Arbus was born Diane Nemerov in New York, 14 March 1923, and died there, 26 July 1971, committing suicide.

She was the daughter of David Nemerov and Gertrude Russek, and the sister of Howard Nemerov, the future Poet Laureate. Her father was a director of the fur and fashion department store Russek's on New York's Fifth Avenue.

Cocooned in a wealthy family environment, Diane felt alienated from "real life" as a child. 14 years old, she started a romance with Allan Arbus which eventually lead to their marriage in 1941. At around this time, the couple developed an interest in photography. Diane took classes with Berenice Abbott and acted as a model for Allan's early fashion pictures, some of which were used in advertisements for Russek's. Their first daughter, Doon, was born in 1945 while Allan served abroad in the army. Upon his return, the couple ran a fashion photography business with Allan behind the camera while Diane mainly fulfilled the role of artistic director in charge of the set up. In 1954 a second daughter, Amy, was born who later became a photographer in her own right. In 1955 Diane studied with Alexey Brodovitch. Considering her role within the business too inferior, in 1956 she withdrew from the partnership with Allan.

Further studies in 1956-58 with Lisette Model liberated Diane from the constraints of commercial photography. While still keeping close contact, Diane and Allan separated in 1959, and she entered into an intimate relationship with the painter Marvin Israel. From 1959 onwards, she kept detailed note books to sketch out ideas for photo projects of her own. Frequently, she tried to get magazines interested in her ideas while also accepting other commissioned work from them. She now tended to avoid to crop pictures and would soon only print full frames as composed within the camera.

The Vertical Journey. Six Movements of a Moment within the Heart of the City, a project for Esquire published in July 1960 about the variety of New York's social groups lead to her involvement with a number of fringe cultures. Another early key article about eccentrics, The Full Circle, published by Harper's Bazaar, was to follow in November 1961. Here, as several times in the future, the photos would be accompanied by her own, often quite brilliantly written text.

Around 1962 she switched from a 35mm camera to a square format but found the change difficult initially. In 1962, Arbus was the recepient of a Guggenheim Foundation grant for a project entitled American Rites, Manners and Customs, in 1966 for a second project, The Interior Landscape. Her prints now usually showed an irregular black border around the motive. In 1967 she featured in John Szarkowski's ground breaking MoMA show New Documents, together with Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand. Still best of friends, Allan divorced her in 1969 and moved to Hollywood as a film actor. For Diane, apart from the loss of a friend close by, this also meant taking full charge of the technical side of her photography, whereas up to that time she was still heavily relying on Allan's expertise and darkroom equipment. The same year, invited by Peter Crookston to do some work for his magazine Nova, she spent some time in England.

Shortly afterwards, she finally gained access to a New Jersey clinic for mentally retarded patients to embark on the project Untitled which she had been envisaging for a long time. In 1970, she issued her limited edition portfolio, A Box of Ten Photographs, and also received the Robert Leavitt Award of the American Society of Magazine Photographers.

Prone to depression, Diane particularly suffered from the dilemma of, on the one hand, finding critical acclaim whilst due to a lack of financial security being forced into magazine and teaching assignments she clearly disliked. Dragging on for months in 1970-71, her dithering about the purchase of a new camera which she knew her creative genius required but which she could hardly afford was symptomatic for her state of mind. Without a clear cause, she finally put the longstanding turbulences of her psyche to rest by committing suicide.

Critical Evaluation

Despite being already influential during her lifetime, Diane Arbus' importance was only fully recognised after her death. While there is still controversy surrounding her work, she now widely enjoys a cult status. The foundation for this was laid in 1972, the year after her death, particularly through her retrospective show at the MoMA and the accompanying Aperture book edited by Doon Arbus and Marvin Israel - the most successful MoMA show since The Family of Man of 1955, and the best selling photography monograph ever, still being reprinted today.

From street photography and shooting in film theatres in the late 1950s, Arbus soon turned to meticulously planned series, frequently concentrating on clearly defined groups of people in similar circumstances, e.g. circus actors, twins and triplets, nudists, winners and losers, and eccentrics in general, tending to emphasise the strangeness of her subjects.

With the human being at the heart of nearly all her work, she took most photos with the knowledge and co-operation of the models who frequently posed and looked directly into the camera. Fascinated, Arbus showed her subjects in their own normality - a normality distinctly different from the average norm. Many times she would concentrate on a staged persona which often involved masking and unmasking, for example in several sequences with strippers in the dressing room or transvestites in different stages of their transformation. Strolling around New York's parks, she was intrigued by people with a strong physical presence, at times heightened by heavy make up as in the Puerto Rican Woman with a Beauty Mark, N.Y.C. 1965.

As a common reproach against Arbus, her pictures are often described as being harsh, uncharitable, even brutal. It is undeniable that they are uncompromisingly direct. But a closer look also frequently reveals caring sympathy, particularly for the physically, psychologically or socially disadvantaged. A photo like A Jewish Giant at Home with his Parents in the Bronx, N.Y. 1970 emphasises not only the physical deterioration of Eddie Carmel (she previously took his picture some ten years earlier in much better health) but also the burden put on his parents' shoulders.

It is true, however, that Arbus set about her photographic endeavours differently at two creative stages. In close proximity with the individual, while taking the photos, she could be compassionate and engaged with the person. Later, isolated from the sitter, when choosing one frame of a sequence for printing, she would invariably pick the most expressive one, thereby frequently suggesting an extreme situation. So, as demonstrated by the contact sheet, the Child with a Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962, despite appearing deranged, was really an ordinary boy who just showed off for the camera. To some extent, this intensification might be related to the practice of her magazine work where she sometimes had to pick just one photo to illustrate the whole story. It also seems to be the case that on assignments which were not based on her own projects, she cared a lot less about developing a compassionate relationship with the sitter, as pointed out by Germaine Greer's bitter lament about the insensitive treatment she received from Arbus which nearly amounted to bullying.

Generally though, Arbus approached people with a genuine interest for their personal circumstances and on many occasions tried to arrange further meetings in their homes where she would take further photos which ranged from simple posing to sexually explicit conduct. Public and private, ostentation and hidden realities are poles with which many of her images can be associated. A famous picture like Boy with a Straw Hat Waiting to March in a Pro-War Parade, N.Y.C. 1967 basically depicts a mask which is shown to the world. The boy's general attitude and slogans characterise him as part of a specific group and become just as much a uniform as nakedness serves as a uniform for the many nudist camp inhabitants. But deeper truths are revealed, for instance, when examinig Identical Twins, Roselle, N.J. 1967. The girls are characterised as being twins mainly by the uniformity of their clothing and haircut whereas their facial expressions just underline their individuality despite being twins.

The dialectics between appearance and substance are fundamental for the understanding of Arbus' art. A little story Neil Selkirk tells is very revealing in this context: in 1972, when he was about to produce an exhibition print of A Family on their Lawn one Sunday in Westchester, N.Y. 1968, Diane's close friend Marvin Israel advised him to make the background trees appear "like a theatrical backdrop that might at any moment roll forward across the lawn" (Diane Arbus. Revelations, 2003, p. 270).

The contrast between a mask presented to the world and the true psychological state is harmonically resolved in Untitled 1970-71. In this series, no conflict exists between a public persona and the private person, no conscious move away from the norm or a double life. The mental patients, some of which are shown in Halloween costumes, don't act strange to impress or deceive. Instead, their attitudes and masks are part and parcel of their true state of mind. There is an innocence about these pictures which is devoid of social constraints. Again, one could see these images purely as a freak show but I would prefer to see them as moving and full of life. Some of the best in the series show the subjects with a big smile, and at some you just have to smile back. Arbus was particularly satisfied with this series and considered producing a photo book - though a book materialised only decades after her death, in 1995, with the assistance of her daughter Doon.

Short bibliography

Diane Arbus. An Aperture monograph, 1972 (numerous reprints)

Susan Sontag, On photography, 1977, pp. 27-48

Diane Arbus. Magazine Work, 1984

Patricia Bosworth, Diane Arbus. A biography, 1984

Diane Arbus. Revelations (exhibition catalogue), 2003 (truly a revelation, albeit a little hagiographic)

Anthony W. Lee / John Pultz, Diane Arbus. Family albums (exhibition catalogue), 2003

My own entry on Arbus in Allgemeines Künstlerlexikon (AKL - Artists of the World) contains an expanded bibliography (text in German; subscription required)

© Gerhard Bissell 2006-22