born: March 14, 1923, New York City
died: July 26, 1971, New York City (suicide)
Diane Arbus (pronounced as “Dee-an”) was an American photographer known for her disturbing portraits of people on the fringes of society: sideshow freaks, nudists, transvestites. She also had a career as fashion photographer, along with her husband Allan Arbus, billing themselves as “Allan and Diane Arbus.” After that she had a career on her own doing magazine work, which sometimes included her offbeat subjects, but more often focused on celebrities or fashion. No matter what the subject was, she photographed them all in her own anti-glamorous style. Her subjects often objected to the results. Norman Mailer once said that “giving a camera to Diane Arbus is like putting a live grenade in the hands of a child.” Remarkably, her productive career spanned only about the last 10 years of her life, cut short by her suicide in1971, at the age of 48.
Diane Arbus was born Diane Nemerov on March 14, 1923, to wealthy parents, Gertrude Russek and David Nemerov, a partner with Russek’s department store. She had an older brother, Howard Nemerov, who would later become a well-known poet, literary critic, and Poet Laureate of the US. Her younger sister, Renee (married names: Sparkia, then Brown), became an artist. They grew up in expensive New York apartments on Central Park West and later on Park Avenue.
At age 13 she fell in love with Allan Arbus, who worked at her family’s store. The family was against the match, but Diane married him as soon as she turned 18. Allan learned photography while in the Army, and he taught Diane as he learned. After the war, they began doing fashion photography work as a team, beginning with work for Russek’s. Soon they were working for such clients as Esquire, Glamour, Harper’s Bazaar, and Vogue. They continued this work through most of the 1950s. Diane and Allan both came to hate fashion photography for its superficiality. Meanwhile, the Arbuses had two daughters, Doon, born in 1945, and Amy, born in 1954.
From about 1955 to 1957, Diane studied photography with Lisette Model at The New School in New York. Model encouraged Diane Arbus to pursue her own offbeat photographic instincts, and in 1956 Diane left the fashion business to Allan. In 1960, she had her first photo-essay published in Esquire magazine, called “The Vertical Journey.” In a series of 6 photos, she juxtaposed wealth and squalor in New York City. From that time on, she was able to make a living from magazine assignments and occasional teaching jobs.
The style Arbus developed included such elements as photographing in a square format, using an on-camera flash, and taking the photo in the subject’s own surroundings. She was also adept at catching her subjects in their unguarded moments. Critics often saw her work as exploitative, especially when the subject was freaks or the retarded. But Diane was drawn to these people for reasons of her own, related to her sheltered upbringing as a child of privilege. She later said “I grew up feeling immune and exempt from circumstance. One of the things I suffered from was that I never felt adversity. I was confirmed in a sense of unreality.” She was drawn to people who had to struggle through life in ways she could only imagine.
In 1959, Diane and Allan Arbus separated. They continued to see each other often, and Diane continued to use Allan’s darkroom and to seek his advice on photography. By 1969 they were divorced. Allan remarried and moved to California to pursue his life-long interest in acting. His best known role to date has been as Sidney Freedman, the psychiatrist, on the TV show M*A*S*H.
Diane received 2 Guggenheim grants, to photograph American rites and customs, in 1963 and 1967. In 1967, the Museum of Modern Art included her work in its groundbreaking New Documents exhibit, which also featured newcomers Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander. This was the show that brought Diane Arbus to widespread public attention for the first time. By the end of her life, only four years later, she had established her reputation as a pioneer of the New Documentary style.
Having struggled with depression her entire life, in July 1971, Arbus committed suicide in her Greenwich Village apartment, by both taking barbiturates and slashing her wrists. (It was officially determined that the barbiturate overdose actually killed her.) Marvin Israel, her friend and mentor in her later years, found the body. Her suicide created an increased interest in, and mystique about, Diane Arbus.
The year after her death, MOMA held a retrospective of her work, which was the most-attended solo photography exhibit in that museum’s history. The accompanying book, titled Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph, and edited by Doon and Marvin Israel, became a best-seller, and was considered for many years the definitive collection on Diane Arbus. In 2003, there was a Diane Arbus exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which travelled throughout the US and Europe. The accompanying book, Diane Arbus Revelations, contains 200 photos, biographical material, and personal notes and images.
In December 2007, the estate of Diane Arbus donated her complete archives and photographic equipment to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Interesting side notes
- One of Arbus’ well-known photos is a very close cropped shot of a baby’s face, which, unlike much of her work, is actually quite beautiful. That baby is Anderson Cooper, now the host of Anderson Cooper 360 on CNN. Google “Diane Arbus Anderson Cooper” to see it.
- In 1963, Diane’s sister Renee, along with her then-husband Roy Sparkia, created a series of eight illuminated panels that still decorate the north corridor of the Empire State Building lobby.
For more info on Diane Arbus, including a short documentary film and Diane Arbus book reviews, go to the Brooks Photopedia Diane Arbus page.
The definitive book on Diane Arbus’ work is Diane Arbus Revelations. It contains large reproductions of all of her iconic work, and plenty of lesser-known works, interspersed with commentary and biographical information.