Diane Arbus (March 14, 1923 July 26, 1971) was an American photographer, noted for her portraits of people on the fringes of society, such as transvestites, dwarfs, giants, prostitutes, and ordinary citizens in unconventional poses and settings.
Diane Arbus (née Nemerov) was born in New York City into a wealthy Jewish family, the younger sister of Howard Nemerov, who served as United States Poet Laureate on two separate occasions. She attended the Fieldston School for Ethical Culture.
She fell in love with future actor Allan Arbus at age 14, and married him in 1941, soon after turning 18, despite her parents' objections. When her husband began training as a photographer for the US Army, he shared his lessons with Diane. As a husband-wife team, the Arbuses became successful in the fashion world. As Diane began to take her own photographs, she took formal lessons with Lisette Model at The New School in New York. Edward Steichen's noted photo exhibit, The Family of Man, included a photograph credited to the couple. Together the Arbuses had two daughters, photographer Amy Arbus and writer and art director Doon Arbus. Allan and Diane Arbus had separated by 1959.
After separating from her husband, Arbus studied with Alexey Brodovitch and Richard Avedon. Beginning in 1960, Arbus worked extensively as a photojournalist, her photos appearing in Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, Harper's Bazaar and Sunday Times magazines, among others. Her first public work was an assignment by Esquire editor and art director Robert Benton. Published under the title, "The Vertical Journey: Six Movements of a Moment Within the Heart of the City", consisting of six portraits of an assortment of New Yorkers. Arbus would go on to collaborate with Hayes and Benton (and Benton's successors) for 31 photographs in 18 articles.
Arbus' early work was created using 35mm cameras, but by the 1960s Arbus adopted the Rolleiflex medium format twin-lens reflex. This format provided a square aspect ratio, higher image resolution, and a waist-level viewfinder that allowed Arbus to connect with her subjects in ways that a standard eye-level viewfinder did not. Arbus also experimented with the use of flashes in daylight, allowing her to highlight and separate her subjects from the background.
In 1963, Arbus received a Guggenheim Fellowship grant. Arbus received a second Guggenheim grant in 1966. The Museum of Modern Art, in 1967, staged Arbus' first museum show as the New Documents show which included the work of Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander. She also taught photography at The Parsons School for Design in NYC and Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts.
In July 1971, Arbus committed suicide in Greenwich Village at the age of 48 by ingesting a large quantity of barbiturates and then slashing her wrists.
MoMA curator John Szarkowski prepared to stage a retrospective in 1972, but the accompanying Diane Arbus catalogue proposal was turned down by all major publishing houses. Aperture magazine's Michael E. Hoffman accepted the challenge, producing an influential photography book. The Aperture monograph has since been reprinted 12 times, selling more than 100,000 copies. The MoMA retrospective traveled throughout North America attracting more than 7 million viewers. Also in 1972, Arbus became the first American photographer to be represented at the Venice Biennale. Arbus' photograph Identical Twins is tenth on the list of most expensive photographs having sold in 2004 for $478,400.
In 2006, the film Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus was released, starring Nicole Kidman as Arbus. Though it is a highly fictionalized account of a period in her life, it used Patricia Bosworth's book Diane Arbus: A Biography as a source.
Overview of Arbus' work
Arbus' voyeuristic approach has been criticized as demeaning to her subjects, based around a major London retrospective of her works. Admirers of Arbus' work, such as filmmaker Todd Solondz, were also interviewed by the BBC and defended her work.
In an effort to dispel this image, Diane Arbus undertook a study of "conventional" people, including Gloria Vanderbilt's infant son, future CNN anchorman Anderson Cooper, for Harper's Bazaar.
Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, New York City (1962) A scrawny boy, with the left strap of his jumper awkwardly hanging off his shoulder, tensely holds his long, thin arms by his side. Clenching a toy grenade in his right hand and holding his left hand in a claw-like gesture, his facial expression is maniacal. Arbus captured this photograph by having the boy stand while moving around him, claiming she was trying to find the right angle. The boy became impatient and told her to "Take the picture already!" This photo was also used, without permission, on the cover of punk band SNFU's first studio album, And No One Else Wanted to Play.
Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967 Young twin sisters are seen standing side by side in corduroy dresses. One slightly smiles and the other slightly frowns. This photo is echoed in Stanley Kubrick's film The Shining, which features twins in an identical pose.
Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents in The Bronx, NY (1970) Eddie Carmel, the "Jewish Giant", stands in his family's apartment with his much shorter mother and father.