Diane Arbus (March 14, 1923 – July 26, 1971) was an American photographer and writer noted for black-and-white square photographs of "deviant and marginal people (dwarfs, giants, transvestites, nudists, circus performers) or of people whose normality seems ugly or surreal." A friend said that Arbus said that she was "afraid... that she would be known simply as 'the photographer of freaks'"; however, that phrase has been used repeatedly to describe her.
In 1972, a year after she committed suicide, Arbus became the first American photographer to have photographs displayed at the Venice Biennale. Millions of people viewed traveling exhibitions of her work in 1972–1979. In 2003–2006, Arbus and her work were the subjects of another major traveling exhibition, Diane Arbus Revelations. In 2006, the motion picture Fur, starring Nicole Kidman as Arbus, presented a fictional version of her life story.
Although some of Arbus's photographs have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction, Arbus's work has provoked controversy; for example, Norman Mailer was quoted in 1971 as saying "Giving a camera to Diane Arbus is like putting a live grenade in the hands of a child."
Arbus was born as Diane Nemerov to David Nemerov and Gertrude Russek Nemerov. The Nemerovs were a Jewish couple who lived in New York City and owned Russek's, a famous Fifth Avenue department store. Because of the family's wealth, Diane was insulated from the effects of the Great Depression while growing up in the 1930s. Arbus's father became a painter after retiring from Russeks; her younger sister would become a sculptor and designer; and her older brother, Howard Nemerov, would later become United States Poet Laureate, and the father of the Americanist art historian Alexander Nemerov.
Diane Nemerov attended the Fieldston School for Ethical Culture, a prep school. In 1941, at the age of 18, she married her childhood sweetheart Allan Arbus. Their first daughter Doon (who would later become a writer) was born in 1945 and their second daughter Amy (who would later become a photographer) was born in 1954.
Diane and Allan Arbus separated in 1958, and they were divorced in 1969.
The Arbuses were both interested in photography. In 1941 they visited the gallery of Alfred Stieglitz, where Diane learned about photographers such as Mathew Brady, Timothy O'Sullivan, Paul Strand, Bill Brandt, and Eugène Atget.:129 In the early 1940s Diane's father employed them to take photographs for the department store's advertisements. Allan was a photographer for the U.S. Army Signal Corps in World War II.
In 1946, after the war, the Arbuses began a commercial photography business called "Diane & Allan Arbus", with Diane as art director and Allan as the photographer. They contributed to Glamour, Seventeen, Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, and other magazines even though "they both hated the fashion world." Despite over 200 pages of their fashion editorial in Glamour, and over 80 pages in Vogue, the Arbuses' fashion photography has been described as of "middling quality." Edward Steichen's noted 1955 photographic exhibit, The Family of Man, did include a photograph by the Arbuses of a father and son reading a newspaper.
In 1956, Diane Arbus quit the commercial photography business. Although earlier she had studied photography with Berenice Abbott, her studies with Lisette Model beginning in 1956 led to Arbus's most well-known methods and style. She began photographing on assignment for magazines such as Esquire, Harper's Bazaar, and The Sunday Times Magazine in 1959. Approximately 1962, Arbus switched from a 35mm Nikon camera which produced grainy rectangular images to a twin-lens reflex Rolleiflex camera which produced more detailed square images.
In 1963 Arbus was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for a project on "American rites, manners, and customs"; the fellowship was renewed in 1966. In 1964 Arbus began using a twin-lens reflex Mamiya camera with flash in addition to the Rolleiflex. Her methods included establishing a strong personal relationship with her subjects and re-photographing some of them over many years.
During the 1960s, she taught photography at the Parsons School of Design and the Cooper Union in New York City, and the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island. The first major exhibition of her photographs occurred at the Museum of Modern Art in a 1967 show called "New Documents" which was curated by John Szarkowski and which also featured the work of Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander. Some of her artistic work was done on assignment. Although she continued to photograph on assignment (e.g., in 1968 she shot documentary photographs of poor sharecroppers in rural South Carolina for Esquire magazine), in general her magazine assignments decreased as her fame as an artist increased. Szarkowski hired Arbus in 1970 to research an exhibition on photojournalism called "From the Picture Press"; it included many photographs by Weegee whose work Arbus admired.
Using softer light than in her previous photography, she took a series of photographs in her later years of people with intellectual disability showing a range of emotions. At first, Arbus considered these photographs to be "lyric and tender and pretty", but by June 1971 she told Lisette Model that she hated them.
Associating with other contemporary photographers such as Robert Frank and Saul Leiter, Arbus helped form what Jane Livingston has termed The New York School of photographers during the 1940s and 1950s. Among other photographers and artists she befriended during her career, she was close to photographer Richard Avedon; he was approximately the same age, his family had also run a Fifth Avenue department store, and many of his photographs were also characterized as detailed frontal poses. Another good friend was Marvin Israel, an artist, graphic designer, and art director whom Arbus met in 1959.:144
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. Marvin Israel found her body in the bathtub two days later; she was 48 years old.
Arbus's most well-known individual photographs include:
In addition, Arbus's Box of Ten Photographs was a portfolio of selected 1963–1970 photographs in a clear Plexiglas box/frame that was designed by Marvin Israel and that was to have been issued in a limited edition of 50. During her lifetime, however, Arbus completed only about 11 boxes and sold only 4 boxes (2 to Richard Avedon, 1 to Jasper Johns, and 1 to Bea Feitler).:220 One copy printed by Neil Selkirk after Arbus's death sold for $553,600 in 2005, which was an auction record for Arbus.
Notable magazine articles
After Arbus's death, her daughter Doon managed Arbus's estate. She forbade examination of Arbus's correspondence and often denied permission for exhibition or reproduction of Arbus's photographs. The editors of an academic journal published a two-page complaint in 1993 about the estate's control over Arbus's images and its attempt to censor part of an article about Arbus. As of 2000, the estate would not release Arbus's 1957–1965 images of transvestites. A 2005 article called the estate's allowing the British press to reproduce only 15 photographs an attempt to "control criticism and debate." The estate was also criticized in 2008 for minimizing Arbus's early commercial work.
In mid–1972 Arbus was the first American photographer to have photographs displayed at the Venice Biennale; her ten photographs were described as "the overwhelming sensation of the American Pavilion" and "an extraordinary achievement".
The Museum of Modern Art held a retrospective of Arbus's work in late 1972 that subsequently traveled around the United States and Canada through 1975; it was estimated that over 7 million people saw the exhibition. A different retrospective traveled around the world in 1973–1979.
Doon Arbus and Marvin Israel edited and designed a 1972 book Diane Arbus (or Diane Arbus: an Aperture Monograph) accompanying the Museum of Modern Art's exhibition. It contained 80 of Arbus's photographs, as well as texts from classes that Arbus gave in 1971, from Arbus's writings, and from Arbus's interviews. The text in the book includes some of Arbus's most widely cited quotations such as:
In 2001–2004 the 1972 book was selected as one of the most important photobooks in history. Over 300,000 copies of the book had been sold by 2004, which is unusual since "independent" photobooks are normally produced in editions of less than 5,000.
A half-hour documentary film about Arbus's life and work known as Masters of Photography: Diane Arbus or Going Where I've Never Been: the Photography of Diane Arbus was produced in 1972 and released on video in 1989.
Patricia Bosworth wrote an unauthorized biography of Arbus that was published in 1984. Although it is said to be "the main source" for understanding Arbus, Bosworth reportedly "received no help from Arbus's daughters, or from their father, or from two of her closest and most prescient friends, Avedon and... Marvin Israel." The book was also criticized for insufficiently considering Arbus's personal writings, for speculating about missing information, and for focusing on "sex, depression and famous people" instead of Arbus's art.
In 2003–2006, Arbus and her work were the subject of another major traveling exhibition, Diane Arbus Revelations, that was organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Accompanied by a book of the same name, the exhibition included artifacts such as correspondence, books, and cameras as well as 180 photographs by Arbus. Because Arbus's estate approved the exhibition and book, the chronology in the book:121-225 is "effectively the first authorized biography of the photographer".
In 2006, the fictional film Fur: an Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus was released, starring Nicole Kidman as Arbus; it used Patricia Bosworth's book Diane Arbus: A Biography as a source of inspiration. The Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased 20 of Arbus's photographs (valued at millions of dollars) and received Arbus's archives as a gift from her estate in 2007.
Reactions of critics and others
Susan Sontag wrote an essay in 1973 entitled "Freak Show" that was critical of Arbus's work; it was reprinted in her 1977 book On Photography as "America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly." Among other criticisms, Sontag opposed the lack of beauty in Arbus's work and its failure to make the viewer feel compassionate about Arbus's subjects. Sontag's essay itself has been criticized as "an exercise in aesthetic insensibility" and "exemplary for its shallowness". A 2008 essay characterized Sontag and Arbus as "Siamese twins of photographic art" because they both struggled with photography as art versus documentation (e.g., the relationship of photographer and subject). A 2009 article pointed out that Arbus had photographed Sontag and her son in 1965, thereby causing one to "wonder if Sontag felt this was an unfair portrait."
Other critics' opinions of Arbus's photographs vary widely, for example:
Arbus's subjects and their relatives also have differing views:
One study published in 1985 examined the opinions of 18 women viewing 8 Arbus photographs. The subjects tended to agree with statements based on Arbus's own words such as "These photographs show the gap between intention and effect" and tended to disagree with statements based on critics' views of Arbus such as "These photographs show the world only as a meaningless place of ugliness, horror and misery."
Notable solo exhibitions
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