Diane Arbus

gigatos | January 7, 2022


Diane Arbus, born Diane Nemerov (New York, March 14, 1923 – Greenwich Village, July 26, 1971), was a Russian-born American photographer.

The photographs for which Arbus is best known are those that portray human beings in their diversity, in their deviation from the “normality” taken for granted, a normality sometimes challenged by nature itself, sometimes by personal choices. His approach, however, is never voyeuristic; on the contrary, the awareness of diversity does not diminish his subjects, as could easily have happened. In most of his portraits the subjects are in their own environment, apparently at ease; instead, it is the viewer who is made uncomfortable by the subject”s acceptance of his own being a “freak”.

In the sixties he received two scholarships from the Guggenheim Foundation and taught photography in several schools in New York and Amherst in the last years of his life. Following increasingly frequent bouts of depression, he took his own life on July 26, 1971.

Youth (1923-1945)

Diane Nemerov was born into a wealthy Jewish family in New York City that owned the Russek”s department store chain: her father was David Nemerov and her mother was Gertrude Russek. She is the second of three children: the elder brother, Howard Nemerov, three years older than Diane, will become known as one of the greatest American poets; the younger sister, Renée, is a sculptor. Her father David, after retiring from business will be a painter, with a fair commercial success. From 1930 Diane attended the “Ethical culture school” in New York and in later years the Fieldston School.

When she was only 14 years old, she met Allan Arbus, five years older, who was a salesman at Russek”s at the time, and fell in love with him. The relationship is not well seen by Diane”s family, but she will marry him when she turns 18, on April 10, 1941. However, the Nemerovs remain on good terms with their daughter. The young couple”s first job is an advertising photo shoot for their father”s chain, Russek”s Department Store. Diane is considered a very gifted girl and is encouraged to take private drawing lessons, but in order to marry Allan she does not hesitate to give up college. During World War II Allan does his military service working as a photographer for the army. At the end of 1944 Allan is active in Burma, and on April 3, 1945 his daughter Doon Arbus is born. At that time Diane returns to stay at home with her parents.

Diane and Allan Arbus photographers (1945-1959)

At the end of the conflict Allan and Diane decide to become photographers, since in 1941 they had already worked briefly in fashion and Allan had accumulated considerable experience as a photographer in the army. At first it seems that Diane is limited to being Allan”s assistant; the studio, however, is called “Diane & Allan Arbus”. Arbus would study photography briefly with Berenice Abbott in 1947, then with Brodovitch in 1955, and finally with Lisette Model, with whom she studied in 1956 and 1957. In an interview with Newsweek Diane recounts her friendship with Model: “Until I studied with Lisette I dreamed of taking photographs, but I didn”t really do them. Lisette told me that I had to have fun doing it…”. The experiences with Aleksej Česlavovič Brodovič, Art Direcor of Harper”s Bazaar, at the New School for Social Research and with Berenice Abbott were useful to her, but the best results are surely due to Model”s teaching. It was thanks to her experience with Lisette that Diane overcame her shyness and found the courage to photograph the subjects she wanted. The first service published by the couple was in 1947, in Glamour. It is a service on pullovers. With Glamour they will often work in the following years, but also with the magazines Seventeen and Vogue.

In 1951 Diane and Allan leave for a year the work on fashion for a trip to Europe. On April 16, 1954, their second daughter Amy Arbus is born. Diane for childbirth refuses anesthesia, and is said to have described it as one of the best experiences of her life. In these years Diane knows a young Stanley Kubrick, then a photographer at the beginning of his career. In 1955 a photo of Diane and Allan, a father reading the newspaper to his son, lying on the bed, is exhibited in Edward Steichen”s monumental exhibition The Family of Man. Diane will collaborate with her husband Allan only until 1956, although for a few more years photographs will appear that continue to bear the credits of both.

Still in the late 1950s Diane works with a 35mm Nikon. “At first I liked the grain. I was fascinated by its effect in the print, because all those little dots formed a tapestry and every detail had to be read through them. Skin was like water and sky, you had more to do with light and shadow than with flesh and blood,” she would say in an interview years later (Aperture 1972, transcript of a 1971 lecture). In 1957 Diane”s father, David Nemerov, left the presidency of the family business and, as a retiree, devoted himself to painting with some commercial success. In 1958 in an exhibition he sells forty-two oil paintings. Diane and Allan also meet Robert Frank and his wife Mary, in 1958, in the middle of the shooting of Pull my daisy; Allan, who has always wanted to be an actor, has a small part in the film. In the period between 1957 and 1960 Diane discovers Hubert”s Museum, a “freak show” located at the corner of 42nd and Broadway, where a series of bizarre figures perform that Arbus will photograph several times over the years. More or less in this period the marriage of Diane and Allan goes into crisis. The two separate in 1958, but inform her family only three years later. They divorce eleven years later, in 1969.

After separating from her husband Allan (1959-1965).

Diane meets Emile De Antonio, distributor of Robert Frank”s film Pull my daisy. Emile, known as “De”, shows Arbus Freaks, the 1932 film by Tod Browning, which has already become a cult movie. Given the subjects of Arbus is certainly one of the films that most closely resemble his aesthetic. It is said that she saw it and rewatched it multiple times. Another place where we often find Diane Arbus taking photographs is Club ”82, located in lower Manhattan and frequented by a series of very particular figures. Among the first subjects photographed by Arbus in these years are Miss Stormé de Larverie, the woman who dresses as a man, and Moondog, a blind giant with a big beard and Viking horns who spends eight hours a day between West 50th and Sixth Avenue. It should be noted that Arbus does not merely photograph these characters in passing, but establishes a true friendship relationship with them, sometimes a deep one. Many of them are photographed several times over the years, as happens to the Mexican man suffering from dwarfism Cha cha cha, stage name of Lauro Morales, portrayed in one of the most famous photos of Arbus. The first photos of the man date back to 1960, and the camera used was still a Nikon 35 mm, up to the one that became famous in 1970, taken with a Mamiya medium format camera. Many of the protagonists of the Hubert”s Museum, the wonderland on 42nd Street, are also often portrayed by Arbus. Although she is initially viewed with suspicion by her subjects, she often manages to establish a relationship of intimacy with the people photographed, and to be accepted by them.

His first publication is The Vertical Journey, six photos published in 1960 in Esquire magazine. This is followed in 1961 by The Full Circle on Harper”s Bazaar. Her subjects represent such an unusual choice that they are published only thanks to the insistence of Marvin Israel, her close friend (and her lover, according to Bosworth”s biography), who at the time has just become art director for the magazine. In fact, it seems that Nancy White, editor-in-chief of Harper”s Bazaar, was against the publication. In fact, the immediate result was some cancellation of the magazine”s subscription. It should be noted that both titles are also fine citations of literature. The vertical Journey of Alice in Wonderland, and Shakespeare”s The full circle. 1962 was the year of the transition to Rollei, not without some initial difficulties. Arbus also developed a new line of interest, that of nudists. Also in 1962, Show publishes photos of Mae West by Arbus, but it seems that the diva did not like them very much. The difficulties with the subjects portrayed for works on commission, which do not like the way in which Arbus portrays them, will be one of the constants of his work. In 1963 Diane Arbus won her first Guggenheim scholarship. In these years she attended the famous fashion photographer Richard Avedon. Between 1964 and 1965 Diane Arbus is often around New York to make photographs.

MOMA and Guggenheim Fellowships (1965-1969)

In 1965 MOMA presented three of Arbus”s photographs in an exhibition entitled Recent Acquisitions. The year before, it had purchased six images from her (plus one as a gift). The public reaction was not one of indifference, and often the photographs had to be cleaned of visitor spit. In 1965 Diane taught a photography course at the Parson school of design. Instead of having students study art in books, Arbus took them to see the works in museums. In 1966 Diane is in Jamaica, photographing children”s fashion photos for the New York Times. In 1967 MOMA exhibits thirty of her photos in the exhibition New Documents, along with photos by Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander.

The exhibition is a great success, despite the controversy that accompanies it. The label of “photographer of monsters” that is sewn on her does not like Diane. According to Bosworth, Diane has always suffered from depression, but because of a hepatitis contracted in 1968 – perhaps caused by drug abuse – she stopped taking antidepressants. In April 1969 he is in London, photographing for the magazines Nova and the Sunday Times. On Nova come out her photos of doubles of famous people: are the years in which Diane is often seen at demonstrations for and against the war in Vietnam. At the end of 1969 Arbus moves to the Wesbeth, a condominium in New York that by statute accepts only artists.

A course for a Pentax (1970-1971)

In 1970 he tried the Pentax 6×7 of a photographer friend of his, Hiro. She was thrilled, the proportions were about the same as the 8×10 plates of the view cameras used in fashion photography. In addition, the view through the viewfinder reminds her of “a big 35mm camera”. In order to buy it, she organized a photography course in which 28 students took part, including Eva Rubinstein, daughter of the great pianist Arthur Rubinstein, who was destined to become a great photographer herself. Arbus is now a myth among young photographers. In 1970 Art Forum publishes her photos, which is very unusual for a monthly magazine that usually deals with abstract art. In 1970 Diane starts photographing disabled people in an institution. As her usual, it is not just one photo session, but she will return there several times. This is the series that will become known after her death under the title Untitled.

Arbus confided in Lisette Model that she had changed her mind about her results. Says Model, “Initially she was very happy about it, but now she felt like she had lost control of the situation.” Among Arbus” latest subjects are also prostitutes and clients of some S&M brothels. Of these works only a few shots are known. By now the depression from which she has always suffered has become more serious, and the woman seems to have lost interest in photography. Even the growing load of responsibility related to success seems to contribute to crush her. On July 26, 1971 she commits suicide, ingesting a strong dose of barbiturates and cutting her wrists in the bathtub. She is found a couple of days later, with her body already in an advanced state of decomposition.

After his death

In 1972 begins the consecration of Diane Arbus. First the Aperture Monograph and then the exhibition of her photos at the Venice Biennale, a participation decided by Arbus shortly before her death, projected her directly into the Olympus of the greats. Among the great exhibitions of Arbus after her death we remember only Diane Arbus Revelations of 2004, which for the first time makes available to the public a large amount of biographical documents and many photos previously never published.

“She come to them” is the slogan that best sums up Arbus” style. She would come to them, and when something in the scene didn”t feel right it wasn”t the scene that was changed, but the photographer who adapted.

Diane Arbus began to take photographs in the 1940s, using a Nikon 35mm camera, but only thanks to the encouragement of photographer Lisette Model did she overcome her shyness and begin (in 1957) to photograph the subjects that really interested her. We can ideally start Diane Arbus” personal work already in 1956, the year in which she begins to number her contact samples starting from nr.1. She will produce and number more than 7,500 rolls until 1971, the year of her suicide. Until 1962 he used almost exclusively the 35 mm (a Nikon) that will abandon permanently in 1963 in favor of the medium format 6×6 cm, a Rolleiflex bioptic, used occasionally in the early years and then a Mamiya C33, always bioptic but with a convenient electronic flash. The photos taken with the flash will become his “trademark” and will be imitated by many photographers in subsequent years. Since 1970 he also uses a Pentax 6×7.

It is useful to divide Arbus”s work into three main strands, that of photographs of eccentric characters and freaks, with whom she always established a relationship of complicity and friendship, sometimes perhaps even of deep intimacy. The one more or less on commission of the various magazines of portraits of characters, famous or not, and finally that of photos taken in the street. Marvin Israel says about the latter: “There are hundreds of specimens where the same face does not appear more than once and they are all close-ups”. In these photographs Arbus concentrates the best of the eccentricity of her particular vision, showing the subjects portrayed without the slightest search for aesthetic embellishment, rather consciously going to seek the opposite extreme, up to the point of conscious provocation, as happens in one of her most famous photos: “Child with a toy hand grenade in central park” (child with a toy bomb) of 1962, in the “not really short” time span that the contact specimen shows us, we can see that the child”s expression of annoyance is induced, in the shots before and after the subject”s expression is relaxed, while in the decisive one the contraction of the face in a grimace is obtained by Arbus by delaying the moment of the shot, the child is angry, he wants to be photographed. The audition reveals the mechanism that the force of the isolated shot hides from us. The magic of the great photographer does the rest.

Arbus”s intimacy with her subjects is shown to us in many ways: from the Cha cha cha dwarf to Marcello Mastroianni, the gallery of characters lying on a bed is endless. If that”s not enough, there”s a contact sample that goes further. There are twelve photos of a couple, she white and he black. She is naked and being pampered by her husband, shirtless but wearing pants. If you look closely at the audition you realize that the woman in the central photo is different. It is Arbus, also completely naked, lying on the black man.

“Every portrait is nothing but the self-portrait of the author, the model is only an occasion, the accident” (from The Portrait of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde). It happens to be the same statement made by August Sander, the German photographer who has been most closely associated with Arbus for the way he shoots his subjects. In fact, one could easily hide some of Sander”s photos among those of Arbus and no one would notice. Never in anyone as in Arbus is every portrait mainly the projection of her obsessions. Let”s choose another famous photo, “Identical twins.” It is the cover of the Aperture monograph dedicated to Arbus. The twins differ only in their expression. One is smiling, the other is not. The close contact between them makes them look like Siamese twins. To discover the true extent of the obsession with the disturbing theme of the double, we need to go back in time, from 1967, the year of the photo, to 1950, when Arbus photographed her daughter Doon in a double exposure in which she portrayed her simultaneously sad and happy. The obsession with doubles follows Arbus throughout her life. The twins “reappear” in Kubrick”s The Shining, Diane”s old friend. They are not, as many believe, just a tribute to the photographer who disappeared, but the best way to render the materialization of an obsession; the circle, once again, is complete “the full circle”. Let”s also remember that in The Shining one of the most chilling scenes is that of the dead woman who commits suicide in the bathtub, now partially decomposed, seducing the protagonist. It is exactly the condition in which they found Arbus, in the bathtub, her body now sprinkled with greenish stains of post-mortem decomposition.

Arbus” biography is the basis of the plot of the 2006 film Fur – An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, directed by director Steven Shainberg, with Arbus played by Nicole Kidman, based on Patricia Bosworth”s novel Diane Arbus: A Biography. The (fictional) story aims to show how Diane came to appreciate the world of diversity, gradually coming into contact and attunement with the world of freaks.


  1. Diane Arbus
  2. Diane Arbus
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