The American photographer Diane Nemerov Arbus (1923-1971) specialized in photographs of nontraditional subjects, including gays, the physically challenged, circus performers, and nudists.
Diane Arbus was born Diane Nemerov on March 14, 1923. The daughter of a wealthy New York businessman (the family owned Russeks department store on Fifth Avenue), Arbus led a pampered childhood. Being a member of a prominent New York family, she grew up with a strong sense of what was "acceptable" and what was "prohibited" in polite society. Her world was a protected one in which she never felt adversity, yet it seemed to her to be an unreal world. Ludicrous as it may seem, the sense of being "immune" from hardship was painful for her. An extremely shy child, Arbus was often fearful but told no one of her fantasies. Her closest relationship was with her older brother, Howard.
From the seventh through the twelfth grade Arbus attended Fieldstone School in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, a part of the Ethical Culture educational system. Here she became interested in myths, ritual, and public spectacle, ideas which would later inform her photography. At Fieldstone she also devoted much time and energy to art class—painting, sketching, and working in clay. During this period of her life Arbus and several of her friends began exploring New York on their own, getting off the subway in unfamiliar areas of Brooklyn or the Bronx, observing and following interesting or unusual passersby.
At the age of 14 Diane met Allan Arbus, a 19-year-old City College student who was employed in the art department at Russeks. It was love at first sight. Her parents disapproved, but this only served to heighten Diane's resolve to marry him as soon as she came of age. In many ways, Allan represented an escape from all that was restricting and oppressive in her family life. They were married in a rabbi's chambers on April 10, 1941, with only their immediate families present.
Early Career as Fashion Photographer
To ease financial pressures, Allan supplemented his job at Russeks by working as a salesman and also by doing some fashion photography. Arbus became his assistant. During World War II when Allan was sent to a photography school near Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, Arbus moved to nearby Red Bank and set up a darkroom in their bathroom. Allan taught her everything he was learning at the school. In May of 1944 Allan was transferred to another photography school, this time in Astoria, Queens. Then, late in 1944, he was sent to Burma. By this time Diane was pregnant with their first child, Doon, who was born April 3, 1945.
During the 1940s Arbus studied briefly under photographer Berenice Abbott. After Allan's discharge from the army, husband and wife teamed up as fashion photographers, working for Russeks and Bonwit Teller. Their first magazine assignment appeared in the May 1947 issue of Glamour and marked the beginning of a long association with Condé Nast publishing firm. Their trademark was to shoot models in action. Yet the Arbuses despised the shallowness of the fashion industry. Her real joy during this period was photographing friends and relatives; often she wore her camera around her neck at family meals.
On April 16, 1954, Arbus gave birth to her second daughter, Army. In addition to her fashion work with Allan, she photographed children—strangers in Spanish Harlem, the offspring of close friends, and, of course, Doon and Amy. Throughout the 1950s she also found herself increasingly attracted to nontraditional subjects, people on the fringes of normal society. This provided a release from the oppression she felt in the fashion world. During these years she also suffered from recurring bouts of depression.
In 1957 the couple decided to make a change. He continued to run their fashion studio, freeing her to photograph subjects of her own choice. She briefly attended Alexey Brodovitch's workshop at the New School and, on her own, made a detailed study of the history of photography. But Arbus found herself most drawn to the photographs of her contemporaries Louis Faurer and Robert Frank and, especially, to the unusual images of Lisette Model. In 1958 Arbus enrolled in a class Model was offering at the New School.
It was during this period of work with Model that Arbus decided what she really wanted to photograph was "the forbidden." She saw her camera as a sort of license that allowed her to be curious and to explore the lives of others. Gradually overcoming her shyness, she enjoyed going where she never had, entering the lives and homes of others and confronting that which had been off-limits in her own protected childhood.
Career with a "Candid Camera"
Model taught her to be specific, that close scrutiny of reality produces something fantastic. An early project Arbus undertook involved photographing what she referred to as "freaks." She responded to them with a mixture of shame and awe. She always identified with her subjects in a personal way. Model once referred to Arbus' "specific subject matter" as "freaks, homosexuals, lesbians, cripples, sick people, dying people, dead people." Instead of looking away from such people, as does most of the public, Arbus looked directly at these individuals, treating them seriously and humanely. As a result, her work was always original and unique.
When Arbus and her husband separated in 1960, her work became increasingly independent. During that period she began her series of circus images, photographing midget clowns, tattooed men, and sideshow subjects. She frequented Hubert's Freak Museum at Broadway and 42nd Street, fascinated by what she saw. She returned again and again until her subjects knew and trusted her. She also frequented the Times Square area, getting to know the bag ladies and derelicts.
Arbus posed her subjects looking directly into the camera, just as she looked directly at them. She said, "I don't like to arrange things; I arrange myself." For her, the subject was always more important than the picture. She firmly believed that there were things which nobody would see unless she photographed them. Arbus created photo essays of these subjects which she sold to magazines such as Esquire, Harper's Bazaar, and Infinity.
In the early 1960s Arbus began to photograph another group, nudists. She frequented nudist camps in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, agreeing to go naked herself in order to gain her subjects' trust. This period, 1962 to 1964, was a particularly productive one for her. Among Arbus' many accomplishments during this time was winning her first Guggenheim fellowship, which allowed her to photograph "American rites and customs, contests, festivals. … "
Three of Arbus' pictures were included in John Szarkowski's 1965 show at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), "Recent Acquisitions"—one of two female impersonators back stage and two from her series on nudists. Viewers were shocked and often repelled by these frank images. A few years later her work was included, along with that of Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander, in Szarkowski's "New Documents" exhibition at the MOMA. The show, which opened March 6, 1967, marked the pinnacle of Arbus' career and included some 30 examples of her work. One critic called her "the wizard of odds." Another asserted that she catered "to the peeping Tom in all of us."
From 1966 on Arbus struggled with bouts of hepatitis which often left her weak and depressed. Then, in 1969, Allan Arbus formally divorced her, marrying Mariclare Costello; soon after, they moved to California. During this difficult period Arbus photographed many of the leading figures of the 1960s: F. Lee Bailey, Jacqueline Susann, Coretta Scott King. She also did some lecturing at Cooper Union, Parsons, and Rhode Island School of Design in addition to giving a master class at Westbeth, the artists' community in which she lived.
Arbus committed suicide in her New York apartment on July 26, 1971. Perhaps the words of her longtime friend, photographer Richard Avedon, provide the most fitting epithet: "Nothing about her life, her photographs, or her death was accidental or ordinary." Her unique vision, her personal style, and the range of her subject matter provided a seminal influence in 20th-century photography.
Further Reading on Diane Nemerov Arbus
The standard work on Arbus' photography is the Aperture monograph Diane Arbus (1972). Patricia Bosworth's Diane Arbus, a Biography (1984) provides a good overview of the photographer's life. In addition, Magazine Work (1984), edited by Doon Arbus and Marvin Israel, includes both Arbus' own words and essays by those closest to her. Arbus is also included in Anne Tucker's The Woman's Eye (1973) and is the subject of numerous magazine and newspaper critiques.