Art History
About me

Diane Arbus


Born Diane Nemerov in New York, 14 March 1923, committed suicide there, 26 July 1971.

Daughter of David Nemerov and Gertrude Russek; sister of the future Poet Laureate Howard Nemerov. 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 feels alienated from "real life" as a child. 14 years old, she starts a romance with Allan Arbus which eventually leads to their marriage in 1941. At around this time, the couple develop an interest in photography. Diane takes classes with Berenice Abbott and acts as a model for Allan's early fashion shots, some of which are used in advertisements for Russek's. Their first daughter, Doon, is born in 1945 while Allan serves abroad in the army. Upon his return, the couple run a fashion photography business with Allan behind the camera while Diane mainly fulfils the role of artistic director in charge of the set up. 1954 birth of the second daughter, Amy, who later becomes a photographer in her own right. 1955 Diane studies with Alexey Brodovitch. Considering her role within the business too inferior, in 1956 she withdraws from the partnership with Allan.
Studying with Lisette Model, 1956-58, Diane feels liberated from the constraints of commercial photography. While still keeping close contact, Diane and Allan separate in 1959, and she enters into an intimate relationship with the painter Marvin Israel. From 1959 onwards, she keeps a detailed note book to sketch out ideas for photographic projects of her own. Frequently, she tries to get magazines interested in her ideas, but also accepts other commissioned work from them. Also, she now tends to avoid the cropping of 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 leads to her involvement with a number of fringe cultures. Another early key article about eccentrics, The Full Circle, published by Harper's Bazaar, is 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 switches from the 35mm camera to a square format but finds the change initially difficult. 1962 Arbus receives a Guggenheim Foundation grant for a project about American Rites, Manners and Customs, 1966 a second one for a project entitled The Interior Landscape. Her prints now usually show an irregular black border around the motive. In 1967 she features together with Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand in John Szarkowski's ground breaking MoMA show New Documents. Still best of friends, Allan divorces her in 1969 and moves to Hollywood as a film actor. For Diane, apart from the loss of a friend close by, this also means taking full charge of the technical side of her photography, whereas up to that time she still heavily relied on Allan's expertise and darkroom equipment. The same year, invited by Peter Crookston to do some work for his magazine Nova, she spends some time in England.
Shortly afterwards, she finally gains 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 issues her limited edition portfolio A Box of Ten Photographs, and also receives the Robert Leavitt Award of the American Society of Magazine Photographers. Of a depressive character, Diane particularly suffers from the dilemma of, on the one hand, finding critical acclaim, whilst, due to the lack of financial security, being forced into magazine and teaching assignments she clearly dislikes. Dragging on for months in 1970-71, the dithering about the purchase of a new camera which her creative genius requires but which she can hardly afford is symptomatic for her state of mind. Without a clear cause, she finally puts the longstanding turbulences of her psyche to rest by committing suicide.

Critical Evaluation

Despite being already influential while still alive, Diane Arbus' importance would only be 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 shoots in film theatres in the late 1950s, she soon turns 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, whereby she tends to emphasise the strangeness of her subjects.
With the human being at the heart of nearly all her work, she takes most photos with the knowledge and co-operation of the model who frequently poses and looks directly into the camera. Fascinated, Arbus shows her subjects in their own normality which is quite distinctly different from the average norm. Many times she would concentrate on a staged persona which often involves masking and unmasking, e.g. several sequences with strippers in the dressing room or transvestites in different stages of their transformation. Strolling around in New York's parks, she is intrigued by people with a strong physical presence which might even be heightened by heavy make up, e.g. 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 seems to approach her photographic endeavours differently at two creative stages. In close proximity with the individual, while taking the photos, she can be compassionate and engages 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, is really an ordinary boy who just shows 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 approaches people with a genuine interest for their personal circumstances and on many occasions tries to arrange further meetings in their homes where she would take further photos which range 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 can be found for instance in the Identical Twins, Roselle, N.J. 1967 who are characterised as being twins again mainly by the uniformity of their clothing and haircut, while the 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. No conflict exists between the public and 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, the 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; 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, at some you just have to smile back. Arbus was particularly satisfied with this series and considered producing a photo book; only decades after her death this materialised with the assistance of her daughter Doon in 1995.

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 (exh. cat.), 2003 (truly a revelation, albeit a little hagiographic)
Anthony W. Lee/ John Pultz, Diane Arbus. Family albums (exh. cat.), 2003

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

© Gerhard Bissell 2006