Diane Arbus 1923- 1971
By Aliza Wall
Photographer Diane Arbus was, in her own words, a photographer of the “things nobody (…) sees.” Born March 14, 1923, to David and Gertrude Nemerov (owners of a famous New York department store, Russek’s ) Arbus (née Nemerov) was immensely privileged. Protected from the devastation of the Great Depression, she and her siblings were free to pursue the arts, her sister becoming a sculptor and her brother a United States Poet Laureate. Although financially comfortable, Arbus and her siblings were largely neglected by their parents, who hired maids and governesses to raise them. From seventh to twelfth grade, Arbus attended the Fieldstone School in the Bronx where she furthered her interests in art and began to explore unfamiliar areas of the city. At 14, she met Allan Arbus, a 19-year-old college student who worked in the art department at Russek’s. The two married, to her parent’s dismay, when she was 18.
Arbus received her first camera (a Graflex) from her husband shortly after they married. The artist then enrolled in classes with Berenice Abbott, an American photographer known for her portraits of important cultural figures. After Allan Arbus was discharged as a war photographer, the couple began a commercial photography business in which Diane was the art director and Allan the photographer. The couple shot fashion spreads for magazines like Glamour, Harper’s Bazaar, and Vogue, and were included in a Glamour piece entitled “Mr and Mrs Inc.” The article was accompanied by a photograph of the couple. Allan looks up at the viewer, his finger poised to press the shutter release while Diane averts her eyes, modest and passive. This piece is emblematic of the couple’s working relationship; Allan was the charismatic photographer and Diane more of a model wrangler, a job that both Allan and Diane described as “demeaning.” In 1956, Arbus began to study with Lisette Model, an Austrian-American street photographer. With Model’s encouragement, Arbus quit fashion photography to pursue her own original work.
In 1959, Arbus and Allan separated, their children Doon and Amy moving in with Arbus. Although the two were no longer together, they maintained an amicable relationship that would last until Arbus’ death. In 1963 and 1966 respectively, Arbus received Guggenheim fellowships for her project titled “American Rites, Manners, and Customs,” a collection of photographs exploring “the stuff of dreams, ritual, aristocracy, imposters, fame, anonymity, figments, real visions, American dreams… [and] American hallucinations.”
During this period, Arbus’ photography gained its hallmark characteristics. Her style was direct and unadorned, her subjects frontal and emotive. Her chosen subjects, often marginalized or purposefully ignored “freaks” had, in her words, “passed their test in life,” and thus gained some “legendary” quality. It was through the portrayal of these individuals that Arbus sought to explore the world she had been denied by her socially conscious parents and share this world with a wider audience. Her 1966 piece,A Young Man in Curlers at Home on West 20th Street, N.Y.C. 1966, is emblematic of the period. The photograph explores the ambiguity of the sitter’s gender presentation. He is deeply masculine, his large hands and strong jaw emphasized by Arbus’ highly precise camera but also undeniably feminine in demeanour and purposeful presentation. The photograph is at once objective in its hyper-detailed quality and subjective in the clear relationship between Arbus and the sitter. These interacting dichotomies imbue the image with an almost surreal quality present in many of Arbus’ works.
From 1969 to 1971, Arbus photographed individuals with intellectual disabilities in a collection she would later nameUntitled. During this period, she began to use natural light in combination with a strobe flash, blurring her previously sharp images and imbuing them with an almost tender quality. Her image, Untitled (6) (1970-71)depicts three girls with Down Syndrome, one of whom bends over as if to do a somersault. The image stands in contrast to traditional depictions of individuals in institutions, in that it depicts them in nature, creating a sense of universality, while at the same time depicting them in moments of happiness.
However, such images raise an important question: do Arbus’ photographs simply reinforce the othering of marginalized individuals or do they empower them? To Arbus’ credit, she had close, lasting relationships with many of her subjects, often photographing them multiple times. She also photographed all subjects, “normal” or not, in the same way, creating a visual language that neither pitied nor passed judgement.
In 1971, Arbus committed suicide. For most of her life, the artist had suffered depressive episodes that were likely caused by bipolar disorder. However, to reduce Arbus to her tragic death is to do her a great injustice. She was not merely a tortured artist but an active, purposive creator enamoured with all that is strange, eerie, and wonderful in life.
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Lubow, Arthur. “Arbus, Untitled and Unearthly.” The New York Times. November 15, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/15/arts/design/diane-arbus-zwirner.html.
Palumbo, Jacqui. “Revisiting Diane Arbus’ Final and Most Controversial Series.” Artsy. November 8, 2018. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-revisiting-diane-arbuss-final-controversial-series.
Searle, Adrain. “Diane Arbus: In the Beginning review- a genius who made every picture a story.” The Guardian. February 12, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/feb/12/diane-arbus-in-the-beginning-review-a-genius-who-made-every-picture-a-story.