Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus
Diane-Arbus-1949.jpg
Photograph of Arbus by Allan Arbus
(a film test), c. 1949[1]:137
BornDiane Nemerov
(1923-03-14)March 14, 1923
New York City, U.S.
DiedJuly 26, 1971(1971-07-26) (aged 48)
New York City, U.S.
Resting placeLocation of ashes unknown
NationalityAmerican
Known forPhotography
Notable workChild with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962 (1962)
Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967 (1967)
Spouse(s)
Allan Arbus
(m. 1941; div. 1969)

Diane Arbus (/dˈæn ˈɑːrbəs/; March 14, 1923 – July 26, 1971)[2] was an American photographer.[3][4] Although Arbus’s most famous subjects were outsiders such as transvestites, strippers, carnival performers, nudists, dwarves, and other marginalized people, she was equally drawn to subjects as ordinary as children, mothers, couples, old people, and middle-class families. She photographed her subjects in familiar settings: their homes, on the street, in the workplace, in the park.[5] 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 nouveau riche, the movie-star fans—and by those who were trapped in a uniform that no longer provided any security or comfort."[4][6][7][8][9] Michael Kimmelman writes in his review of the exhibition Diane Arbus Revelations, "Her memorable work, which she did, on the whole, not for hire but for herself, was all about heart—a ferocious, audacious heart. It transformed the art of photography (Arbus is everywhere, for better and worse, in the work of artists today who make photographs), and it lent a fresh dignity to the forgotten and neglected people in whom she invested so much of herself."[10]

In her lifetime she achieved some recognition and renown[11] with the publication, beginning in 1960, of photographs in such magazines as Esquire, the London Sunday Times Magazine, Artforum, and Harper’s Bazaar,[12] 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.[13] John Szarkowski, the director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art from 1962 to 1991, championed her work and included it in his groundbreaking 1967 exhibit New Documents along with the work of Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand.[3] Her photographs were also included in a number of other major group shows.[13]:86

In 1972, a year after she died by suicide Arbus became the first photographer to be included in the Venice Biennale[14] [11]where her photographs were "the overwhelming sensation of the American Pavilion. If one’s natural tendency is to be skeptical about a legend, it must be said that all suspicion vanishes in the presence of the Arbus work, which is extremely powerful and very strange.”[15]

A retrospective organized by John Szarkowski at the Museum of Modern Art in New York had the highest attendance of any exhibition in MOMA's history to date.[16] Millions viewed traveling exhibitions of her work in 1972–1979.[17] The book accompanying the exhibition, Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph, ed by Doon Arbus and Marvin Israel and first published in 1972 has never been out of print.[18][19]

Personal life[]

Arbus was born Diane Nemerov to David Nemerov and Gertrude Russek Nemerov,[8][11] a Jewish couple who lived in New York City and owned Russek's, a famous Fifth Avenue department store.[11][20] Because of her family's wealth, Arbus was insulated from the effects of the Great Depression while growing up in the 1930s.[11] Her father became a painter after retiring from Russek's; her younger sister would become a sculptor and designer; and her older brother, Howard Nemerov, a professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis, would later become United States Poet Laureate and the father of the Americanist art historian Alexander Nemerov.[8]

Arbus's parents were not deeply involved in parenting their children. She and her siblings were raised by maids and governesses while her mother suffered from depression and her father was busy with work. She separated herself from her family and her lavish childhood.[21]

Arbus attended the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, a prep school.[22] In 1941, at the age of 18, she married her childhood sweetheart, Allan Arbus,[8] whom she had dated since age 14.[23] Their first daughter, Doon, who would become a writer, was born in 1945; their second daughter, Amy, who would become a photographer, was born in 1954.[8] Arbus and her husband worked together from 1946 to 1956. Allan was very supportive of her, even after she quit commercial photography and began developing an independent relationship to photography.[24]

Arbus and her husband separated in 1959 and divorced in 1969 when he moved to California to pursue acting.[25] The couple maintained a close friendship after their separation. The family met regularly for Sunday breakfasts and the couple continued to share a darkroom.[1]:144 Although Arbus made her own prints, under Allan's supervision his studio assistants processed her negatives.[1]:139[4] Prior to his move to California, Allan set up her darkroom.[1]:198 and they thereafter continued a long correspondence.[1]:224

In late 1959 Arbus began a relationship with the art director and painter Marvin Israel[1]:144[26] that would last until the time of her death. All the while, he remained married to Margaret Ponce Israel, an accomplished mixed-media artist.[27] Marvin Israel both spurred Arbus creatively and championed her work. He was the one to encourage her to create her first portfolio.[28] Among other photographers and artists she befriended during her career, 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.[17][29][26]

Photographic career[]

Arbus received her first camera, a Graflex, from Allan shortly after they married.[4] 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.[1]:129[30] In the early 1940s, Diane's father employed them to take photographs for the department store's advertisements.[4] Allan was a photographer for the U.S. Army Signal Corps in World War Two.[30]

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.[4] 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."[24] They contributed to Glamour, Seventeen, Vogue, and other magazines even though "they both hated the fashion world."[17][31] Despite over 200 pages of their fashion orial in Glamour, and over 80 pages in Vogue, the Arbuses' fashion photography has been described as of "middling quality."[32] 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.[8]

She studied briefly with Alexey Brodovich in 1954.[33] However, it was her studies with Lisette Model, which began in 1956, that encouraged Arbus to focus exclusively on her own work.[4] That year Arbus quit the commercial photography business and began numbering her negatives.[34] (Her last known negative was labeled #7459.)[24][4] Based on Model's advice, Arbus avoided loading film in the camera as an exercise in truly seeing.[35] </ref> Arbus also crs Model with making it clear to her that, "the more specific you are, the more general it'll be.[4]

By 1956 she was working with a 35mm Nikon, wandering the streets of New York City and meeting her subjects largely, though not always, by chance. A few years later, in 1958 she began making lists of who and what she was interested in photographing.[36] She began photographing on assignment for magazines such as Esquire, Harper's Bazaar, and The Sunday Times Magazine in 1959.[8]

Around 1962, Arbus switched from a 35mm Nikon camera which produced the grainy rectangular images characteristic of her post-studio work[13]:55 to a twin-lens reflex Rolleiflex camera which produced more detailed square images. She explained this transition 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."[37]:8-9 In 1964, Arbus began using a 2-1/4 Mamiyaflex camera with flash in addition to the Rolleiflex.[29][1]:59

Arbus's style is said to be "direct and unadorned, a frontal portrait centered in a square format. Her pioneering use of flash in daylight isolated the subjects from the background, which contributed to the photos' surreal quality."[38][8][29][39] Her methods included establishing a strong personal relationship with her subjects and re-photographing some of them over many years.[8][17]

In spite of being widely published and achieving some artistic recognition, Arbus struggled to support herself through her work.[22][40] "During her lifetime, there was no market for collecting photographs as works of art, and her prints usually sold for $100 or less."[3] It is evident from her correspondence that lack of money was a persistent concern.[1] Throughout the 1960s, Arbus supported herself largely by taking magazine assignments and commissions.[41] 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 theater owner, Konrad Matthaei, and his wife, Gay, commissioned Arbus to photograph a family Christmas gathering.[42] During her career, Arbus photographed Mae West, Ozzie Nelson and Harriet Nelson, Bennet Cerf, atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair, Norman Mailer, Jane Mansfield, Eugene McCarthy, billionaire H. L. Hunt, Gloria Vanderbilt's baby, Anderson Cooper, Coretta Scott King, and Marguerite Oswald (Lee Harvey Oswald's mother).[42][1][22] In general, her magazine assignments decreased as her fame as an artist increased.[8][43] 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.[11][30][44] 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.[11][45]

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.”[1]:200[13]:63

In 1963, Arbus was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for a project on "American rites, manners, and customs"; the fellowship was renewed in 1966.[14][46] In 1964, Arbus began using a twin-lens reflex Mamiya camera with flash in addition to the Rolleiflex.

Beginning in 1969 Arbus undertook a series of photographs of people at New Jersey residences for the developmentally and intellectually disabled, posthumously named Untitled.[47][22][48] Arbus returned to several facilities repeatedly for Halloween parties, for picnics, and dances.[49] In a letter to Allan Arbus dated November 28, 1969, she described these photographs as "lyric and tender and pretty."[1]:203

Artforum published six photographs, including a cover image, from Arbus's portfolio, A box of ten photographs, in May of 1971.[1]:219[50] After his encounter with Arbus and the portfolio, Philip Leider, then or in chief of Artforum and a photography skeptic, admitted, “With Diane Arbus, one could find oneself interested in photography or not, but one could no longer . . . deny its status as art.”[51] 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."[13]:51

The first major exhibition of her photographs occurred at the Museum of Modern Art in the influential[52] "New Documents" (1967) alongside the work of Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander, curated by John Szarkowski.[53][54] New Documents, which drew almost 250,000 visitors[55] demonstrated Arbus’s interest in what Szarkowski referred to as society’s “frailties”[33] and presented what he described as "a new generation of documentary photographers,"[53] described elsewhere as "photography that emphasized the pathos and conflicts of modern life presented without orializing or sentimentalizing but with a critical, observant eye."[56] 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.[33]

Death[]

Arbus experienced "depressive episodes" during her life similar to those experienced by her mother, and the episodes may have been made worse by symptoms of hepatitis.[8] Arbus wrote in 1968, "I go up and down a lot," and her ex-husband noted that she had "violent changes of mood." On July 26, 1971, while living at Westbeth Artists Community in New York City, Arbus took her own life by ingesting barbiturates and slashing her wrists with a razor.[4] She wrote the words "Last Supper" in her diary and placed her appointment book on the stairs leading up to the bathroom. Marvin Israel found her body in the bathtub two days later; she was 48 years old.[4][8] Photographer Joel Meyerowitz told the journalist, Arthur Lubow, "If she was doing the kind of work she was doing and photography wasn’t enough to keep her alive, what hope did we have?”[24]

No record exists as to the location of her ashes.

Legacy[]

"[Arbus's] work has had such an influence on other photographers that it is already hard to remember how original it was," wrote the art critic Robert Hughes in a November 1972 issue of Time magazine.[57] She has been called "a seminal figure in modern-day photography and an influence on three generations of photographers"[3] and is widely considered to be among the most influential artists of the last century.[58][11][59]

Since Arbus died without a will, the responsibility for Arbus's work fell to her daughter, Doon.[4] She forbade examination of Arbus's correspondence and often denied permission for exhibition or reproduction of Arbus's photographs without prior vetting, to the ire of many critics and scholars.[4] The ors of an academic journal published a two-page complaint in 1993 about the estate's control over Arbus's images and its attempt to censor characterizations of subjects and the photographer’s motives in article about Arbus.[60] A 2005 article called the estate's allowing the British press to reproduce only fifteen photographs an attempt to "control criticism and debate."[61] The estate was also criticized in 2008 for minimizing Arbus's early commercial work, although those photographs were taken by Allan Arbus and cred to the Diane and Allan Arbus Studio.[4][32] Notwithstanding, her work has been the subject of twenty-five solo exhibitions, eight authorized publications, and countless critical articles.

In 1972, Arbus was the first photographer to be included in the Venice Biennale; her photographs were described as "the overwhelming sensation of the American Pavilion" and "an extraordinary achievement."[14][62]

The Museum of Modern Art held a retrospective curated by John Szarkowski of Arbus's work in late 1972 that subsequently traveled around the United States and Canada through 1975;[63] it was estimated that over seven million people saw the exhibition.[17] A different retrospective curated by Marvin Israel and Doon Arbus traveled around the world between 1973 and 1979.[63]

Doon Arbus and Marvin Israel ed and designed a 1972 book Diane Arbus: an Aperture Monograph, published by Aperture and accompanying the Museum of Modern Art's exhibition.[6] It contained eighty of Arbus's photographs, as well as texts from classes that she gave in 1971, some of her writings, and interviews,[6][64]

In 2001–2004 Diane Arbus: an Aperture Monograph was selected as one of the most important photobooks in history.[64][65][66][67]

Neil Selkirk, a former student, began printing for the 1972 MOMA retrospective and Aperture Monograph.[1]:214, 269 He remains the only person who is authorized to make posthumous prints of Arbus's work.[68]

A half-hour documentary film about Arbus's life and work known as Masters of Photography: Diane Arbus or Going Where I've Never Been: The Photography of Diane Arbus was produced in 1972 and released on video in 1989.[69][70]

Patricia Bosworth wrote an unauthorized biography of Arbus published in 1984. Bosworth reportedly "received no help from Arbus's daughters, or from their father, or from two of her closest and most prescient friends, Avedon and ... Marvin Israel".[17] The book was also criticized for insufficiently considering Arbus's own words, for speculating about missing information, and for focusing on "sex, depression and famous people," instead of Arbus's art.[22]

Between 2003 and 2006, Arbus and her work were the subject of another major traveling exhibition, Diane Arbus Revelations, which was organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Accompanied by a book of the same name, the exhibition included artifacts such as correspondence, books, and cameras as well as 180 photographs by Arbus.[22][20][45] By "making substantial public excerpts from Arbus's letters, diaries and notebooks" the exhibition and book "undertook to claim the center-ground on the basic facts relating to the artist's life and death."[71] Because Arbus's estate approved the exhibition and book, the chronology in the book is "effectively the first authorized biography of the photographer."[1]:121–225[8]

In 2006, the fictional film Fur: an Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus was released, starring Nicole Kidman as Arbus; it used Patricia Bosworth's unauthorized biography Diane Arbus: A Biography as a source of inspiration. Critics generally took issue with the film's "fairytale" portrayal of Arbus.[72][73]

The Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased twenty of Arbus's photographs (valued at millions of dollars) and received Arbus's archives as a gift from her estate in 2007.[74]

In 2018, The New York Times published a belated obituary of Arbus[3] as part of the Overlooked history project.[75][76]

Frequently cited quotations[]

“A photograph is a secret about a secret,” she said. “The more it tells you the less you know.”[3][1]:219[28]

"My favorite thing is to go where I've never been."[37]:1[6][8][57]

"Our whole guise is like giving a sign to the world to think of us in a certain way, but there's a point between what you want people to know about you and what you can't help people knowing about you. And that has to do with what I've always called the gap between intention and effect."[22][29][77][38][37]:1-2

"Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot....There’s a quality of legend about freaks. Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. Most people go through life dreading they'll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They've already passed their test in life. They're aristocrats."[20][29][10][78][37]:2

"I do feel I have some slight corner on something about the quality of things. I mean it's very subtle and a little embarrassing to me, but I believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them."[29][39][60][79][37]:15

"It’s always seemed to me that photography tends to deal with facts whereas film tends to deal with fiction. The best example I know is when you go to the movies and you see two people in bed, you’re willing to put aside the fact that you perfectly well know that there was a director and a cameraman and assorted lighting people all in that same room and the two people in bed weren’t really alone. But when you look at a photograph, you can never put that aside."[42][37]:6

"Everybody has that thing where they need to look one way but they come out looking another way and that’s what people observe. You see someone on the street and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw.."[42][37]:1

"They are the proof that something was there and no longer is. Like a stain. And the stillness of them is boggling. You can turn away but when you come back they’ll still be there looking at you."[1]:226[13]:51

"I never have taken a picture I’ve intended. They’re always better or worse."[37]:15

"For me the subject of the picture is always more important than the picture. And more complicated. I do have a feeling for the print but I don’t have a holy feeling for it. I really think what it is, is what it’s about. I mean it has to be of something. And what it’s of is always more remarkable than what it is."[37]:15

"Nothing is ever the same as they said it was. It’s what I’ve never seen before that I recognize."[50][1]:219

Critical reception[]

Some of Arbus's subjects and their relatives have commented on their experience being photographed by Diane Arbus:

Publications[]

Notable photographs[]

Eddie Carmel, Jewish Giant, taken at Home with His Parents in the Bronx, New York, 1970

Arbus's most well-known photographs include:

In addition, Arbus's A box of ten photographs was a portfolio of selected 1963–1970 photographs in a clear Plexiglas box/frame that was designed by Marvin Israel and was to have been issued in a limited ion of 50.[26][107] However, Arbus completed only about 11 boxes and sold only four (two to Richard Avedon, one to Jasper Johns, and one to Bea Feitler).[1]:220[8]</ref>[58] One copy printed by Neil Selkirk after Arbus's death sold for $792,500 in 2017.[108]

Notable solo exhibitions[]

Collections[]

Arbus's work is held in the following permanent collections:

References[]

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