In photos: Remembering Diane Arbus and her profound world

March 14, 2015 /Photography News/ Born into a wealthy Jewish family in New York 92 years ago on March 14, 1923, Diane Arbus made her reputation photographing people on the margins of society: losers, misfits, nudists, transvestites, prostitutes, the mentally retarded, sideshow freaks, and almost anyone who seemed not to fit in easily with her upper middle class background. And occasionally she photographed celebrities, sometimes to their dismay.

Diane Arbus, Untitled (3), 1970-71, © The Estate of Diane Arbus. Courtesy of Masters of Photography
At age 18 Diane married Allan Arbus (divorced 1969), an employee at her family’s store. Before separating, they worked collaboratively, first taking photographs and creating advertisements for the store, then creating commercial fashion photography for Harper’s Bazaar, Show, Esquire, Glamour, The New York Times, and Vogue.

Eddie Carmel, Jewish Giant, taken at
Home with His Parents in the Bronx, NY, 1970
After taking a brief photography course with Berenice Abbott, Arbus met Lisette Model, an Austrian-born documentary photographer, and studied with her from about 1955 to 1957. With Model’s encouragement Arbus gave up commercial work to concentrate on fine-art photography. In 1960 Esquire published Arbus’s first photo-essay, in which she effectively juxtaposed privilege and squalor in New York City. Thereafter she made a living as a freelance photographer and photography instructor.

Unlike many photographers with whom she overlapped, like Henri Cartier Bresson and Robert Frank, Arbus would often meet a subject and form a long relationship, the diaries and date books show. It could take 10 years for her to produce her best photographs of that subject.

Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967
Arbus' best-known single work is her haunting photograph of side-by-side twin girls, whose identical faces are just enough different that they seem like a paradigm of good and evil, darkness and light. Stanley Kubrick liked them so much he alluded to the pair with the creepy children who haunt the giant hotel in his movie "The Shining."

Toward the end of her life, she explicitly described her work in those terms. "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 really believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them."

Arbus experienced "depressive episodes" during her life similar to those experienced by her mother, and the episodes may have been worsened by symptoms of hepatitis. 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. Her good friend Marvin Israel found her body in the bathtub two days later; she was 48 years old.

Diane Arbus, Teenager with a Baseball Bat, NYC, 196
Today Arbus, who once said her pictures sought to capture “the space between who someone is and who they think they are,” has become one of America’s best-known photographers and one of its most controversial.

Diane Arbus, Untitled (1), 1970-71, © The Estate of Diane Arbus. Courtesy of Masters of Photography
A collection of her photos was published in 1972 in connection with a successful major exhibition of her work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. That same year her work was shown at the Venice Biennale, marking the first time that an American photographer received that distinction. In 2003 an extensive exhibition of her work opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and later traveled throughout the United States and Europe. An accompanying book, Diane Arbus Revelations (2003), contained some 200 photographs as well as excerpts from her letters and notebooks. In 2007 Arbus’s estate gifted her complete archives - including photographic equipment, diary pages, and the negatives of some 7,500 rolls of film - to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Diane Arbus, Mexican dwarf in his hotel room in N.Y.C., 1970, © The Estate of Diane Arbus. Courtesy of Masters of Photography
Diane Arbus, Untitled (7), 1970-71, © The Estate of Diane Arbus. Courtesy of Masters of Photography
Diane Arbus, A young man with curlers at home on West 20th Street, N.Y.C., 1966, © The Estate of Diane Arbus. Courtesy of Masters of Photography
Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, New York City (1962)

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  1. Anonymous says

    visions of grotesque edged by insanity and suspened by the ticking of time, slowly and uneven. a feeling of discomfort coated in shades of gray.

    Steve Giovinco says

    I've loved Diane Arbus' work for years and has been such a great influence for me as well as countless photographers.

    Anonymous says

    Diane Arbus has always fascinated me. Her work is not about precise technique which doesn't interest me at all. Anyone can own a Nikon but not everyone can convey feeling.

    Anonymous says

    Thank you for this beautiful resume of Diane's life and work. Very well done!She's been like a mentor to me! Thank you!

    Anonymous says

    I have mixed feelings about Arbus' work. An exhibit several years ago showed some of her well known images alongside her contact sheets and some commentary on the photos. It's clear from these contacts and commentary that she was far more involved in eliciting responses from her subjects than you might ever imagine. For instance, the boy with the toy hand grenade was asked to do any number of actions until he was finally so upset with her that he made the above frustrated expression. You can read into the photo what you will, but in reality he was just a kid messing around with his toys while his mother was nearby. This subject is further addressed in a terrific article in The New York Times Magazine which is titled A Closer Reading of Roman Vishniac which can be read here:

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