Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus - Biography and Legacy

American Photographer

Born: March 14, 1923 - New York City, New York
Died: July 26, 1971 - New York City, New York

Biography of Diane Arbus


Diane Nemerov grew up in New York City in a wealthy Jewish family who owned a successful fur company named Russeks. She was the second of three children who all grew-up to be creatives. (Howard, the eldest, grew up to be a Pulitzer Prize winning poet and the younger, Renee became an artist). Raised in a series of lavish homes in Upper East Side of New York City, her childhood consisted of maids and governesses helping raise her and her siblings. Diane's mother, Gertrude, struggled with bouts of depression preventing her from intellectually supporting Diane while her father, David, stayed busy with work. The rest of her life, she would try separating herself from her family and upbringing. Many have thought that she did this through her work, as an extension of her personal suffering, for she felt oppressed in her own community and felt akin to her subjects as a social outcast.

With the encouragement of her father, Arbus took up painting around 1934. Afraid of letting her family down, she never let her dislike for painting be known. In 1936, she met Allan Arbus, who was working in the advertising department at Russek's. Though she continued to study art through summer programs, she never went to college, but instead married Allan in 1941. Allan bought Arbus her first camera and turned their bathroom into a darkroom. Immediately following their marriage, she started taking photography more seriously and enrolled in classes with the famed photographer, Berenice Abbot. In 1945 their daughter Doon was born while Allan was stationed in the army. Arbus chronicled her first pregnancy sparking her curiosity in becoming a photographer herself.

Early Period

In 1941, David Nemerov hired Allan and Diane to photograph models for Russek's newspaper advertisements. Diane took to designing and styling the fashion models, while Allan photographed the models and perfected the photos in the dark room. Shortly after, they began publishing with major fashion publications such as, Vogue, Glamour, and Harper's Bazaar, which placed the Arbus' among the likes of other noted names in fashion photography such as Richard Avedon and Irving Penn.

As fashion photographers, Diane and Allan were constantly looking for new assignments, generating ideas for magazines, and traveling. Diane longed to photograph on her own terms, not just to work as a glorified stylist. Furthermore, the fact that her ideas dictated many of the photographs that made the magazine spreads endowed her with the courage to move away from fashion to find a new purpose.

After giving birth to their second daughter Amy in 1954, Arbus began studying alongside American photographer Lisette Model in 1956. Emerging as a dedicated and inspired photographer, she commenced the new chapter in her life that also meant ending her involvement with her and Allan's photography firm. For the first time, Arbus began numbering her negatives, which is a method she continued for the rest of her career. Most importantly, she started recording appointments, meetings, and ideas for prospective projects, along with quotations, bits of conversations, and books that appealed to her.

Mature Period

In 1959 when Allan and Diane separated, she found a renewed sense of purpose for her personal work. She cut down her hair, transformed her apartment into a working space filled with photos pinned up on the walls, and slept on a mattress situated on the floor. Arbus scraped together a living for herself and her two daughters through commercial work with magazines. Most notably she worked for Esquire Magazine, which sought to publish "new journalism" which employed literary techniques to enhance reporting, and gave her a unique opportunity that helped develop her artistic voice. She improvised childcare through the help of friends and family and started life as a working artist. Allan continued working as a fashion photographer, making the firm's darkroom available to Arbus and assisting her with technical matters. Photography allowed her transformation from an uptown, private-school-educated wife with a coy personality into someone who longed for an artistic voice independent from her bourgeois upbringing. She felt akin to the underrepresented and gravitated toward subjects that allowed a morbid fascination by merely looking.

She frequented Hubert's Museum freak shows, investigated body builder competitions, beauty contests, and youth gang meetings, which are all events where voyeurism is encouraged. Hubert's was located in Times Square, which was a seedy epicenter of hedonism; an area not often frequented by women. This live show was open from 1925-1969 and for 25 cents one could gaze upon human oddities, such as the bearded lady, or Zip the human pinhead, as well as performers such as sword swallowers and snake charmers. This show was a safe space for one to gaze upon unique humans, and gave Arbus a taste of where her interests were to develop. She later approached subjects independently and sought out those who live on the margins of society, those that are often thought of as grotesque.

Arbus's curiosity made her search for an unseen world, as she said of her upbringing, "the outside world was so far from us," and this led her to develop a kinship to the underrepresented, the misunderstood, and the strange. These thoughts transfixed her and preoccupied her mind for the rest of her career. She openly called her subjects on the fringes of society, "freaks", which in her eyes, was not derogatory. She said that, "(freaks) don't have to go through life dreading what may happen, it's already happened. They've passed their test. They're aristocrats." These individuals were stigmatized in their public life, but through photography, become the source of wonder and fascination for an audience to gaze infinitely.

She was very public about her feelings of being a social outcast within her own community, and sought solace in her subjects on the fringe. In turn, she channeled her frustration and by extension, her outsider feelings, into her work and sought out the eccentric. It wasn't enough to capture a likeness; through multiple visits over many years she gained the access and the trust with her subjects, which often became friendships. "What I'm trying to describe is that it's impossible to get out of your skin into somebody else's," she once wrote. "And that's what all this is a little bit about. That somebody else's tragedy is not the same as your own."

In her oeuvre we can see that she also deliberately explored the juxtaposition of these "freaks" as well as people well integrated in society. She had a vision that made her subject's bodies into visual spectacles, no matter the subject. Her images of socialites, American families, and even children evoke a grotesque tenor. She simultaneously brought the extravagance as one living as a man in a woman's clothing, on par with the extravagance of chasing the suburban American dream.

Her findings eventually led her to receive a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation to photograph "American Rites, Manners, and Customs" in 1963. In her proposal she wrote, "I want to photograph the considerable ceremonies of our present, I want to gather them, like somebody's grandmother putting up preserves, because they will have been so beautiful." This opened up doors for Arbus, and she was awarded a renewal for the Guggenheim grant in 1965, and again in 1966. Of this she wrote, "The Fellowship enabled me to go far enough to find the way to go further. I have learned to get past the door, from the outside to the inside. One milieu leads to another."

Her magazine projects and personal projects overlapped and merged, sometimes evolving into and out of one another. Marvin Israel, a lover and fellow product of an upper-class Jewish family in New York inspired Arbus to do some of her best work. Israel is also accredited for encouraging and shaping Richard Avedon's best work, among many other modern photographers of that era. He was her intellectual equal and the two shared much in common, but Israel refused to leave his wife for Arbus. Her adventurousness and curious mentality craved variety and newness to stave off feelings of restlessness and boredom. She once complained to a friend that, "she was untouched by the ordinary joys and pains that make people feel alive." She also stated that "the condition of photographing, is maybe the condition of being on the brink of conversion to anything." Arbus was truly looking for an avenue of self-fulfillment and validation in her personal life as much as her profession.

She was excited to receive this validation in 1967 with her first museum exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art alongside Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand. The exhibition entitled, New Documents, featured her ceremony photographs, street photography, and candid portraits. Arbus, conscious of the fact that her photos were different from Winogrand and Friedlander, had reservations about showing her photos, about being presented at the right time in the right way; "I always thought I'd wait until I'm ninety to have a show or.. [do] a book because I figured I was good for only one shot - that I wanted to wait until I had it all done." Director of the Department of Photography at the time John Szarkowski, wrote in his intro to the exhibition, "In the past decade this new generation of photographers has redirected the technique and aesthetic of documentary photography to more personal ends. Their aim has been not to reform life but to know it, not to persuade but to understand." Winogrand and Friedlander are both documentary street photographers, chasing the decisive moment. Arbus approached her subjects differently, and sought aspects of an unrevealed truth that is often ignored by everyday society. This show had dramatically shaped the reception of photography, for it was elevated on the level of fine art; something documentary photography had not done previously. MoMA influenced this through exhibitions and publications and sought to push the expectations of art practice, which is still part of their mission statement today.

Later Period

Around 1968, it became evident to Arbus that she would need other sources of income beyond photographic journalism to sustain herself. Her magazine publications dwindled as her work appeared less imaginative. To earn more money, she reluctantly began teaching college photography courses at Parsons and at Cooper Union and later gave a master class at her home in Westbeth. At this same time, she also grew restless of her camera materials and often wrote about losing her fondness of flash photography that once amazed her.

Arbus's grew increasingly unhealthy in the period following 1968. Her diagnoses of depression and Hepatitis B caused unwanted weight loss and a feeling of constant fatigue. Allan and Diane, though separated since 1959, finally divorced in 1969. Allan moved to California creating an even more unstable atmosphere for Diane, "I guess it was oddly enough the finality of Allan leaving (for California) that so shook me... Suddenly it was no more pretending. This was it." Soon she transferred all her emotional weight to Israel and developed a malign envy for his wife. Many of Arbus's friends and colleagues noticed her exaggerated mood swings. Her negative reaction towards many of her prescribed medications prevented her mental state from improving. Once again, money was an issue too. She declined an invitation by Walker Evans to teach a photography class at Yale since her depression made her incapable of carrying out the course and other strenuous commitments.

In the last two years of her life, she gained access to a home for the mentally handicapped in Vineland, New Jersey and photographed the residents on multiple occasions. She originally wanted to produce a book on this singular subject, which is something she had not done previously. The images were not exhibited during her lifetime, however a book was published in 1995 titled "Untitled" that consisted of 51 images and was published posthumously by her daughter Doon in conjunction with the Aperture Foundation. This body of work is ethically complex; for it is not certain that the subjects in the images gave consent, let alone were able to give consent. Arbus was sensitive to the issue of acquiring releases for her magazine work, and some images were pulled from the 1967 MoMA show because she didn't have releases from some subjects. Advocates for special needs say that the subjects probably didn't give permission or understand what being photographed entails.

In early 1971, she told her friends that photography no longer met her needs of fulfillment. Arbus grew to despise the pictures she took of the patients in New Jersey that she vehemently sought to capture for so many years. On July 26, 1971 Israel found Arbus after she committed suicide in her Greenwich Village apartment by ingesting lethal sedatives and cutting her wrists.

The Legacy of Diane Arbus

Arbus's short and troubled life resulted in a body of work that was, and continues to be, both celebrated for its compassion and condemned for its objectification. More than anything else, Arbus remains a mystery, a controversial mystery. It is often the case that art historians (and sensationalist news columnists) want to make her out to be more of a freak as to explain the nature of her work. They cite potential (and unconfirmed) sexual relations with her brother and her daughter's relationship with Marvin Israel (who was Arbus's long-time passion).

There is also controversy over Arbus's relationships with her subjects. In one infamous series, a number of photos focus on an interracial couple, but one of the photos includes a nude Arbus on top of the man. This series, and related rumors of Arbus's modus operandi have different interpretations: maybe she was engaged in an orgy with this couple, or maybe she always stripped nude when photographing nudists, or it might have been her way to make the couple more comfortable. All of this, of course, sums up to an artist that is very provocative and regularly gets re-interpreted in the age of post-modern art - a time of art-making that accepts and embraces a number of these practices (that Arbus may or may not have pioneered).

Ultimately, her courage to confront extremes in human situations influenced fashion, street, and feminist photographers. For example, Steven Meisel's edgy fashion photography created controversial magazine layouts, pairing fashion with politics and questionable social standards. His idea to shave the eyebrows of a British fashion model not only launched the model's career but also earned her a nickname, "Le Freak" that recalls the label often giving to Arbus's photographs. American photographer, Nan Goldin's deeply personal and candid portraits of the LGBT community is a direct influence of Arbus's themes of sexual identity, role-playing, and individual aberrance that distinguished Arbus from her male peers in the post-WWII era. Despite never being affiliated with feminism herself, Arbus's female perspective influenced the photography of Cindy Sherman, whose ability to explore and deconstruct female stereotypes and identity is the product of the profound, albeit unintentional, inroads Arbus made for female perception in the 1960s and 70s. The continued mythologizing of Arbus has brought her into the limelight again and again, as many institutions have brought retrospective exhibitions to the public consistently since her death.

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Diane Arbus Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 21 Jan 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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