Diane Arbus [1923 – 1971] was an American photographer known for her unsettling and captivating portraits of people on the margins of society.
Her subjects, often dwarfs, circus performers, nudists, and transgender individuals, were captured with a direct gaze and an almost clinical detachment, challenging viewers’ perceptions of normalcy and beauty.
Arbus’s work sparked controversy and debate, but she remained unwavering in her artistic vision. Her masterful use of light, composition, and framing created images that are both disturbing and strangely compelling, revealing the hidden humanity within her subjects.
Although her career was tragically cut short by suicide, Diane Arbus’s legacy continues to influence and inspire photographers and artists alike, solidifying her place as one of the most significant figures in 20th-century photography.
Read the full Biography below.
Photography Quotes From Diane Arbus
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She wasn’t always interested in photography. Before pursuing photography, Arbus worked as a fashion model and briefly attended the Art Students League in New York to study painting. However, she eventually found her true passion in capturing the human experience through photography.
Videos about Diane Arbus
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She was known for her unconventional framing and composition. Arbus often challenged traditional portraiture conventions by employing unusual angles, close-ups, and unexpected juxtapositions. This created a sense of unease and intrigue, prompting viewers to engage with her subjects in a new way.
Photography Books: Diane Arbus
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She was a skilled manipulator and director of her subjects. While Arbus often cultivated close relationships with her subjects, she also knew how to stage and manipulate scenes to achieve the desired effect. This ability to orchestrate reality adds another layer of complexity to her work.
Biography of Diane Arbus
Early Life and Family Background
Diane Arbus, born Diane Nemerov on March 14, 1923, in New York City, was a photographer known for her distinctive portrayal of individuals on the fringes of society.
Born into a wealthy Jewish family, the owners of Russeks, a Fifth Avenue department store, Arbus grew up in a world of privilege and artistic influence. Her father was a painter, and her mother’s interest in fashion photography exposed her to the world of visual arts from a young age.
Education and Early Interest in Photography
Arbus attended the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, a progressive educational institution in New York, where she developed an early interest in art. Her teenage years were marked by a rebellious spirit and a desire to break free from her affluent background. She often visited art galleries and museums, developing a deep appreciation for photography and painting.
Marriage and Collaborative Work
In 1941, at the age of 18, Arbus married Allan Arbus, an employee at her parents’ store and an aspiring photographer. Together, they pursued a career in fashion photography, a path partly motivated by financial necessity after Diane’s father lost a significant portion of his fortune.
The couple started a commercial photography business, with Allan as the photographer and Diane as the stylist. Their work was published in magazines like Vogue and Glamour, but Diane eventually grew disillusioned with the fashion world.
Artistic Shift and Solo Career
In the late 1950s, Arbus began to explore photography as a form of artistic expression, distinct from her commercial work with her husband. She took brief photography courses with Berenice Abbott at the New School for Social Research.
She later studied with Lisette Model, an Austrian-born American photographer known for candid street photography. Model’s influence was significant in shaping Arbus’s photographic style and her approach to subjects.
Distinctive Photographic Style
Arbus’s work is characterized by its focus on marginalized and unconventional subjects, including circus performers, transgender people, nudists, and individuals with physical abnormalities. Her photography challenged societal norms and often provoked discomfort, offering a stark, unflinching view of her subjects.
Arbus’s images were groundbreaking in their frank portrayal of subjects previously ignored or hidden from public view.
Method and Approach
Arbus’s method involved developing close relationships with her subjects, often spending time with them before photographing them. Her approach was deeply personal, and she strived to capture the essence of her subjects’ lives and experiences.
She worked primarily with a Rolleiflex medium format twin-lens reflex camera, which produced square-format photographs, a signature aspect of her work.
Critical Acclaim and Exhibitions
Arbus’s work started to gain significant recognition in the 1960s. Her photographs were included in the 1967 exhibition “New Documents” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, alongside the work of fellow photographers Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand. This exhibition marked a turning point in her career, establishing her as an important figure in contemporary photography.
Personal Struggles and Tragic End
Despite her professional success, Arbus struggled with personal issues, including depression. Her marriage to Allan Arbus ended in 1969, although they remained close friends. Diane Arbus’s life came to a tragic end on July 26, 1971, when she took her own life at the age of 48.
Posthumous Recognition and Legacy
After her death, Arbus’s work gained even greater acclaim. In 1972, her photographs were selected for the Venice Biennale, the first time an American photographer received this honor. Her work has since been the subject of numerous exhibitions and retrospectives worldwide.
Diane Arbus’s legacy lies in her profound influence on photography. Her unapologetic and empathetic portrayal of individuals on society’s margins challenged and expanded the boundaries of photographic subject matter. Her work continues to be celebrated for its emotional depth, unique perspective, and power to provoke and engage viewers.