Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus
Diane Arbus
Born Mar. 14, 1923
New York, New York
Died July 26, 1971 (at age 48)
New York, New York
Nationality American

Diane Arbus was an American photographer who was particularly well-known for monochromatic photos of what she called the “deviant and marginal” of society. These, usually presented in a square frame, included circus artistes, transgender people, and those of abnormal height.

Despite her concentration on these subjects, she told friends that she did not want to be famous only for photographing “freaks.” By 1972, she was highly respected, and she was the first American to be featured at the Venice Bienniale. Arbus committed suicide in the same year.

Early Life

Arbus was born as Diane Nemerov on March 14, 1923, in New York. Her parents owned a department store on Fifth Avenue and their income allowed Arbus to escape the ravages of the Great Depression. After a prep school education, she married Allan Arbus, whom she had known since childhood, in 1941.

In 1945, they had a daughter, Doon, with another daughter, named Amy, following nine years later. The marriage broke down shortly afterward, although the couple did not actually divorce until 1969. By that time, Arbus had become extremely well known, with her pictures of people in and around New York City itself being her most popular subjects. Her pictures showed a side of the postwar United States that was rarely seen in more mainstream artists’ work.

Career Highlights

Arbus began her photographic career shortly after her marriage, working mainly as a stylist as the pair ran a fashion photography firm. She gradually increased the number of photos she took in her own right, and was tutored by Abbott and then Brodovitch.

In the mid-1950s, while at a workshop operated by Lisette Model, she was inspired to make a serious career from reality photographs of unusual characters. Nevertheless, it was only in 1960 that she was published for the first time, in Esquire magazine. During the 1960s, she was frequently published there, as well as in other renowned publications, including Harper’s Bazaar.

Arbus’ Photography Style

diane-arbus1In 1962, Arbus felt that 35mm film did not give her enough interaction with those who formed the subjects of her photographs. She moved to a twin-lens, square format camera and combined this with a classical, formal style that soon became her hallmark. She was twice honored with Guggenheim Fellowships, first in 1963 and again three years later.

Although New Jersey and New York itself continued to be her main subjects, she also traveled as far afield as California to take pictures of festivals, rituals, and contests. A series named simply Untitled, spread over two years from 1969, showed the residents of a mental home.

Later Years and Publications

In 1970, Arbus published the first of what was to be a considerable number of limited-edition portfolios of her photographic works. She called it simply A Box of Ten Photographs. By this time, a few of her most famous photos had become generally famous, although most of her work was still known only to dedicated photographers.

She had been experiencing episodes of depression throughout her life, which may have been exacerbated by hepatitis. These caused startling mood swings, and on July 26, 1971, she got into her bathtub. She took barbiturates and then used a razor to slash her wrists. Her body was discovered only after two days.

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