Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus
Photograph of Diane Arbus by Allan Arbus
(a film test), c. 1949[1]:137
Born Diane Nemerov
(1923-03-14)March 14, 1923
New York City, New York, USA
Died July 26, 1971(1971-07-26) (aged 48)
New York City
Resting place Ashes buried at Ferncliff Cemetery
Nationality American
Known for Photography
Notable work Child 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) was an American photographer noted for photographs of marginalized people—dwarfs, giants, transgender people, nudists, circus performers—and others whose normality was perceived by the general populace as ugly or surreal.[2][3][4][5][6] Her work has been described as consisting of formal manipulation characterized by blatant sensationalism.[7]

In 1972, a year after she committed suicide (there exists a popular cliche of her being the Sylvia Plath of photographers),[7] Arbus became the first American photographer to have photographs displayed at the Venice Biennale.[8] Millions viewed traveling exhibitions of her work in 1972–1979.[9][10] The book accompanying the exhibition, Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph, ed by Doon Arbus and Marvin Israel and first published in 1972 was still in print by 2006, having become the best selling photography monograph ever.[11] Between 2003 and 2006, Arbus and her work were the subjects of another major traveling exhibition, Diane Arbus Revelations.[12] In 2006, the motion picture Fur, starring Nicole Kidman as Arbus, presented a fictional version of her life story.[13]

Personal life[]

Arbus was born Diane Nemerov to David Nemerov and Gertrude Russek Nemerov,[5][14] a Jewish couple who lived in New York City and owned Russek's, a famous Fifth Avenue department store.[14][15] Because of her family's wealth, Arbus was insulated from the effects of the Great Depression while growing up in the 1930s.[14] 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.[5]

Diane Nemerov attended the Fieldston School for Ethical Culture, a prep school.[12] In 1941, at the age of eighteen, she married her childhood sweetheart Allan Arbus.[5] Their first daughter, Doon, who would later become a writer, was born in 1945; their second daughter, Amy, who would later become a photographer, was born in 1954.[5] Arbus and her husband worked together. After long hours in the studio, Diane would rush home to cook dinner for Allan and their two daughters. Allan was very supportive of Diane, even after she quit commercial photography. Allan had given Diane her first camera after their honeymoon. She began developing an independent relationship to photography.[16]

Diane and Allan Arbus separated in 1959, and were divorced in 1969.[17] They still remained close because of their daughters. Allan would come over for Sunday breakfast and he continued to develop Diane's film.[16]

Diane began a relationship with art director and painter Marvin Israel that would last roughly ten years, until the time of her death. He was married and made clear to Arbus that he was never going to leave his wife. He pushed Arbus very hard regarding her work.

Photographic career[]

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[18] 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.[18]

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] Diane 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."[16] They contributed to Glamour, Seventeen, Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, and other magazines even though "they both hated the fashion world".[10][19] 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".[20] 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.[5]

In 1956, Arbus quit the commercial photography business.[4] During a spring shoot for Vogue, Arbus came to the realization that she didn't want to do it anymore. It is noted that she simply stated, "I can’t do it anymore. I’m not going to do it anymore.” She began wandering the streets of New York City with a 35mm Nikon. She would follow strangers and wait in doorways until she saw someone she felt compelled to photograph. She would number her film as she developed her photos. Her last known negative was labeled #7459.[16]

Although earlier she had studied photography with Berenice Abbott, and with Alexey Brodovich in 1954[21], her studies with Lisette Model, which began in 1956 with her enrollment in one of Model's classes taught at The New School, led to Arbus's most well-known methods and style.[4] She began photographing on assignment for magazines such as Esquire, Harper's Bazaar, and The Sunday Times Magazine in 1959.[5] Around 1962, Arbus switched from a 35 mm Nikon camera which produced grainy rectangular images to a twin-lens reflex Rolleiflex camera which produced more detailed square images, on larger 2 1/4 film.[5][22][23]

In 1963, Arbus was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for a project on "American rites, manners, and customs"; the fellowship was renewed in 1966.[8][24] In 1964, Arbus began using a twin-lens reflex Mamiya camera with flash in addition to the Rolleiflex.[22] Her methods included establishing a strong personal relationship with her subjects and re-photographing some of them over many years.[5][10]

During the 1960s, she was hired by The Matthaeis' (art collectors) to photograph them[7] while 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.[14][25]

The first major exhibition of her photographs occurred at the Museum of Modern Art in an influential[26] 1967 show called "New Documents", alongside the work of Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander, curated by John Szarkowski.[27][28] New Documents demonstrated Arbus’s interest in what Szarkowski referred to as society’s “frailties”[21] and presented what he described as "a new generation of documentary photographers",[27] described elsewhere as "photography that emphasized the pathos and conflicts of modern life presented without orializing or sentimentalizing but with a critical, observant eye."[29] The show was polarizing, receiving both praise and criticism, with some identifying her as a disinterested voyeur and others praising her for her evident empathy with her subjects.[21]

Some of her artistic work was done on assignment.[12] Although she continued to photograph on assignment (e.g., in 1968 she shot documentary photographs of poor sharecroppers in rural South Carolina for Esquire magazine), in general her magazine assignments decreased as her fame as an artist increased.[5][30] 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.[14][18][31]

Using softer light than in her previous photography, she took a series of photographs in her later years of people with intellectual disability showing a range of emotions.[12][32] At first, Arbus considered these photographs to be "lyric and tender and pretty", but by June, 1971, she told Lisette Model that she hated them.[22]

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 as detailed frontal poses.[10][22][33] Another good friend was Marvin Israel, an artist, graphic designer, and art director whom Arbus met in 1959.[1]:144[33]

During her career, Arbus photographed Mae West, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, Bennet Cerf, famous atheist Madalyn Murray, and Marguerite Oswald (Lee Harvey Oswald's mother).[7]

Her photography 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."[34]


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.[5] 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][5] Photographer Joel Meyerowitz told 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?”[16]

Her ashes were buried at Ferncliff Cemetery, but no record exists at the cemetery.[35]

Without a will, responsibility of Arbus' work went to her daughter, Doon.[36] Doon had her work displayed in Venice Biennale and a posthumous retrospective at MoMA just over a year after her mother's death.[37][38]


Notable photographs[]

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

Arbus's most well-known individual photographs include:

In addition, Arbus' 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.[33][51] 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[5][41] One copy printed by Neil Selkirk after Arbus's death sold for $553,600 in 2005, an auction record for Arbus.[41]


Arbus is the best known female photographer of her generation. As stated in the journal History of Photography in 2012, "The obsessive, self-indulgent, no-holds-barred quality of Diane Arbus's life, and the helpless, desperate nature of her death, have led to the photographer's being portrayed as a spectacularly flawed shooting star of photographic history."[52] After Arbus's death, her daughter Doon managed Arbus's estate.[4] She forbade examination of Arbus's correspondence and often denied permission for exhibition or reproduction of Arbus's photographs.[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 part of an article about Arbus.[53] As of 2000, the estate would not release Arbus's 1957–1965 images of transvestites.[54] A 2005 article called the estate's allowing the British press to reproduce only fifteen photographs an attempt to "control criticism and debate".[55] The estate was also criticized in 2008 for minimizing Arbus's early commercial work.[20]

In mid–1972, Arbus was the first American photographer to have photographs displayed at the Venice Biennale; her ten photographs were described as "the overwhelming sensation of the American Pavilion" and "an extraordinary achievement".[8][56]

The Museum of Modern Art held a retrospective of Arbus's work in late 1972 that subsequently traveled around the United States and Canada through 1975; it was estimated that over seven million people saw the exhibition.[9][10] A different retrospective traveled around the world between 1973 and 1979.[9]

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.[2] It contained eighty of Arbus's photographs, as well as texts from classes that she gave in 1971, some of her writings, and interviews,[2][57] including some of her most widely cited quotations:

In comparing movies to photographs, Arbus once said, "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."[7] She has also said that "everybody has this 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."[7] Another comment of hers is that "everybody has that thing where they need to look one way but they come out looking another way...and that has to do with what I've always called the gap between intention and effect. I mean if you scrutinize reality closely enough, if in some way you really, really get to it, it becomes fantastic."[34]

In 2001–2004 Diane Arbus: an Aperture Monograph was selected as one of the most important photobooks in history.[57][62][63][64] Over 300,000 copies had been sold by 2004, unusual as "independent" photobooks are normally produced in ions of less than 5,000.[57]

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.[65][66]

Patricia Bosworth wrote an unauthorized biography of Arbus published in 1984. Although it is said to be "the main source" for understanding Arbus, 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".[10] The book was also criticized for insufficiently considering Arbus's personal writings, for speculating about missing information, and for focusing on "sex, depression and famous people", instead of Arbus's art.[12]

Between 2003 and 2006, Arbus and her work were the subject of another major traveling exhibition, Diane Arbus Revelations, that 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.[12][15][25] By "making public substantial excerpts from Arbus's letters, diaries and notebooks" the exhibition and book "undertook to claim the centre-ground on the basic facts relating to the artist's life and death".[52] 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[5]

In 2006, the fictional film Fur: an Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus was released, starring Nicole Kidman as Arbus; it used Patricia Bosworth's book Diane Arbus: A Biography as a source of inspiration.[13][67]

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.[68]

Reactions of critics and others[]

Susan Sontag wrote an essay in 1973 entitled "Freak Show" that was critical of Arbus' work; it was reprinted in her 1977 book On Photography as "America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly".[12] Among other criticisms, Sontag opposed the lack of beauty in Arbus' work and its failure to make the viewer feel compassionate about Arbus' subjects.[69] Sontag's essay itself has been criticized as "an exercise in aesthetic insensibility" and "exemplary for its shallowness".[12][15] Sontag has also stated that "the subjects of Arbus' photographs are all members of the same family, inhabitants of a single village. Only, as it happens, the idiot village is America. Instead of showing identity between things which are different (Whitman's democratic vista), everybody is the same."[7] A 2008 essay characterized Sontag and Arbus as "Siamese twins of photographic art", because they both struggled with photography as art versus documentation (e.g., the relationship of photographer and subject).[70] A 2009 article pointed out that Arbus had photographed Sontag and her son in 1965, thereby causing one to "wonder if Sontag felt this was an unfair portrait".[69] Philip Charrier argues in a 2012 article that despite its narrowness and widely discussed faults, Sontag's critique continues to inform much of the scholarship and criticism of Arbus' oeuvre. The article proposes overcoming this tradition by asking new questions, and by shifting the focus away from matters of biography, ethics, and Arbus' suicide.[52]

Other critics' opinions of Arbus' photographs vary widely, for example:

Some of Arbus' subjects and their relatives have offered their opinions:

Notable solo exhibitions[]


Arbus' work is held in the following permanent collections:


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  2. ^ a b c d Arbus, Diane. Diane Arbus. Millerton, New York: Aperture, 1972. ISBN 0-912334-40-1.
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  6. ^ Gaines, Steven. The Sky's the Limit: Passion and Property in Manhattan. New York: Little, Brown, 2005. Page 143. ISBN 0-316-60851-3.
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Further reading[]


Book chapters[]

Journal articles[]

External links[]