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Arbus, Diane


Diane Arbus, whose singular, often shocking portraits emerged among the most iconic and modern images of the 1960s, famously wrote in 1971, "A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know" (Arbus 1971, p. 64). Although Arbus's quote reveals her skepticism toward the common assumption that photography tells the truth-in other words, that it is a visually accurate medium-her work has nonetheless been linked to the documentary photographic tradition. By the late 1950s American photographers in particular began to register their discontent with the prevailing photographic conventions that focused on formalism or "fine art" aesthetics. Photojournalism-including the role it played in larger cultural upheavals, such as Vietnam, the civil rights and women's movements-emerged as a viable mode of photography. Moreover, the role of the photographer in relation to his or her subject came under scrutiny. Post-World War II figures such as Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, Danny Lyon, Bruce Davidson, and Arbus, among others, pointed their cameras toward the common, everyday, and often ugly realities of urban existence and the individual subject. Their vernacular approach, which actually borrowed from both the fine art and documentary traditions, came to be described as the snapshot aesthetic. These pictures of the so-called "social landscape" were often captured quickly using portable 35mm cameras, often on the street. They appeared to be casually composed (if at all), incorporating movement and happenstance. Critics and historians of photography such as Nathan Lyons and John Szarkowski attempted to describe this fresh development that brought greater, self-conscious creativity to the objective and socially conscious picture.

A formative exhibition that introduced the notion of social landscape photography was New Documents: Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand (1967), organized by Szarkowski at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Head of the museum's photography department from 1962 to 1991, Szarkowski's wide-ranging and groundbreaking exhibitions helped place photography within the company of painting and sculpture within the art museum and beyond. New Documents heralded a nascent age in a photography that emphasized the pathos and conflicts of modern life presented without editorializing or sentimentalizing but with a critical, observant eye. Szarkowski saw in these three artists a shift in the documentary approach, traced through Walker Evans, which incorporated deeply personal ends. He wrote in the Museum's wall panel, "Their aim has been not to reform life, but to know it. Their work betrays a sympathy-almost an affection-for the imperfections and frailties of society (Szarkowski quoted in Diane Arbus Revelations, 2003, p. 51).

Arbus's affinity for imperfection and frailty is today legendary, making her role in this sea-change historically relevant. Yet her oeuvre is also distinct and virtually unique in her generation for its emphasis on portraiture in its classical sense. Unlike the loose and cropped compositions of her peers, who often captured fleeting images and moments, Arbus's photographs relied upon an established relationship of some sort between the sitter and the photographer. In other words, Arbus's process intimately involved the subject, who was usually posed, and always remained cognizant of the photographer's presence. While the pictures may appear candid, they were more often than not painstakingly composed with an emphasis on visual narrative and description. Her talents lie in her uncanny ability to communicate something distinct, private, and mutable about her subjects' personalities, fantasies, or experiences, what she called "the gap between intention and effect" (Arbus, 1972, p. 1-2). Drawn to the power of myth and self-invention, Arbus's titles reflected this interest in telling a story about her subjects: A family on their lawn one Sunday in Westchester, N.Y. (1968), Man at a parade on Fifth Avenue, N.Y.C. (1969), A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y. (1970), and Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. (1962). This narrative approach is related to the context in which the images were first seen - primarily in the pages of popular magazines where they appeared as photo essays.

Diane Nemerov Arbus's photographic career began as a commercial one in which she partnered with her husband Allan Arbus. The couple ran a successful commercial studio in New York City, and their work appeared regularly in Glamour and other magazines. Diane generally devised the concepts, designed and styled the shots, while Allan worked behind the camera; she learned from him how to develop film and print negatives in the makeshift darkroom that was the couple's bathroom. She simultaneously took her own pictures, using a 35mm Nikon to photograph people, often those characters she met on the street. The Arbuses worked together from about 1941 to 1956 when Diane quit the business to pursue her own photography fulltime; she pursued editorial assignments in order to pay for more creative, personal work.

In 1959 she earned her first commissioned photo essay, ostensibly about the vagaries of urban life in New York City for Esquire magazine. Titled "The Vertical Journey: Six Movements of a Moment Within the Heart of the City," the portfolio included portraits as disparate as a side-show performer known as "The Jungle Creep," who appeared in Hubert's Museum of eccentrics in Times Square to an honorary regent in the Washington Heights chapter of the D.A.R. (Daughters of the American Revolution). She went on to publish more than 250 pictures in Harper's Bazaar, Esquire, the Sunday Times Magazine of London, and elsewhere. Other photo essays included "The Auguries of Innocence" (Harper's Bazaar, December 1963), "The Soothsayers—What's New: The Witch Predicts" (Glamour, January and October 1964), and "People Who Think They Look like Other People" (Nova, October 1969). Arbus generally wrote extensive text captions for the essays' images. She approached her personal work in much the same manner.

Although Arbus's most famous subjects were outsiders such as transvestites, strippers, carnival performers, nudists, dwarves, and other assorted "freaks," she was equally drawn to the prosaic in subjects as ordinary as children, mothers, couples, old people, and the like. She photographed her subjects in familiar settings: their homes, on the street, in the workplace, in the park. While the environmental setting often provides description as to the sitter's personality or life, it does not distract from the matter at hand, namely the poignancy or intensity of the interaction between Arbus and her subject.

She admired and was influenced by the typologies of August Sander, whose assorted shopkeepers, industrial workers, peasants, artists, as well as social outcasts reflected archetypes the photographer found within his own milieu—Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. She shared with Sander a breadth of iconography and a sympathy with subjects presented without romanticism. Her nearly archeological interest in social mores and milieus is evidenced in her project proposal for a 1963 Guggenheim Grant. Titled "American Rites, Manners and Customs," she sought to depict a range of social ceremonies, including beauty pageants, games and competitions, costumes, parties, and the like. Arbus called these ceremonies "our symptoms and our moments. I want to save them, for what is ceremonious and curious and commonplace will be legendary" (Arbus quoted in Diane Arbus Revelations, p. 41). She won this grant and received a second one from the Guggenheim in 1966. Arbus's photography also bears the influence of her teacher, Austrian-born Lisette Model, who also photographed for Harper's Bazaar and whose expressive images monumentalize their human, often quirky, subjects.

In order to achieve sharper, less grainy images, Arbus had abandoned the 35mm format by 1963 for a wide-angle Rolleiflex and later a Mamiyaflex camera, each of which produced 2-1/4" square negatives. A photographer held the 2-1/4 cameras at waist-level, looking down, which slowed down the process of picture-making considerably. This format was in keeping with her prolonged portrait sittings. In addition, the wide angle of her first Rolleiflex created a slight warping of the contents of the frame, lending a subtle skewing of the composition that enhanced the psychological effect of the picture. As early as 1965 she began printing her pictures with the irregular, black borders that showed the entire, uncropped negative. These borders (also used in Richard Avedon's portraits) called attention to the fact that the image was constructed on a two-dimensional surface rather than a window-like view to the subject. Typical of the 1960s documentary aesthetic, Arbus's use of the negative borders put stress upon the subjectivity of the photographer and her vision. Arbus's portraits search the surface of people, their facades, costumes, eccentricities, and her direct, frontal compositions reflect this. However, penetrating vision often points to a hidden psychology, or at least the traces of the vulnerabilities that lie beneath this surface.

Historians have noted the potency, and discomfort, associated with Arbus's seemingly voyeuristic iconography, especially in relation to the viewer. Arbus was intently aware of the role she played in relation to her subjects, including any responsibility she might have for or to them. Because she recognized that the pictures were the result of an often passionate, emotional investment in her subjects, she was careful to temper this with aesthetic deliberation and dispassion. This complex intertwining of roles-between photographer and subject, photographer and viewer, and subject and viewer-reveals Arbus's masterful understanding of empathy moderated by critical distance (Phillips, Diane Arbus Revelations, p. 59). The gravitas of her work, in fact, lay in this acute, triangular relationship linking photographer, subject, and viewer. It represented a rather early understanding of image theory that would later inform much of postmodern photography.

In keeping with Arbus's interest in subcultures, in 1969 she began photographing at a home for the mentally retarded in New Jersey. These images remain mysterious glimpses into the photographer's subjective mindset as well as beautifully poignant representations that seem to waver on the line between what is normal and abnormal. Arbus's care to show her subjects as individuals-without exploitation or editorializing-was reflected in the seriousness of this personal project, for which she had to seek extensive permissions. Most of the photographs from this series were posthumously printed and titled (as Untitled images). In her notebooks of the time she detailed the various residents by name, often describing particular interactions on a given day. The work was edited by her daughter Doon Arbus and published in 1995 (Arbus, Untitled, 1995).

That same year she self-produced a limited edition portfolio of museum-quality prints titled A box of ten photographs (dated 1970). The prints were displayed in a minimalist, elegant, clear box that doubled as a framing device, designed by her friend Marvin Israel. The collection of photographs-all of which related to the family-as well as their presentation represented a conscious statement about how she viewed herself as an artist and her photography (Phillips, Diane Arbus Revelations, p. 66). The portfolio included several images from New Documents and five that had been published in Artforum, May 1971. She advertised the sale of the portfolio in Artforum magazine; only four sets sold in her lifetime, one to the artist Jasper Johns.

At the time of her death by suicide in 1971 (she had suffered from depression throughout her adult life), Arbus's photography was not widely exhibited in museums and galleries, although it would prove to be instrumental in the artistic reexamination of photography within American museums, where the medium would assume a sure and stable place during Szarkowski's tenure. Although Arbus had serious reservations about displaying her pictures in museum exhibitions, where she feared her intentions might be misunderstood, her work has retained a vital and major place within the history of photography.

Lynn M. Somers-Davis

See also: Documentary Photography; Street Photography; Lisette Model; John Szarkowski; Garry Winogrand


Born Diane Nemerov, New York City, March 14, 1923 to Gertrude and David Nemerov. Her wealthy family of Russian-Jewish descent owned Russek's, a fashionable Fifth Avenue department store. Married Allan Arbus against parents' wishes in 1941. Brother was Howard Nemerov, Pulitzer-prize winning poet and U.S. Poet Laureate in 1988. Daughter Doon Arbus born 1945; daughter Amy Arbus born in 1954. With husband opened fashion photography studio ("Diane and Allan Arbus"), 1946. Attended first photography course in mid-1950s with Alexey Brodovitch at New School for Social Research, New York City; studied with Lisette Model at the New School, 1956-58. Quit the business in 1956 to pursue her own work, garnering assignments for Esquire, Harper's Bazaar, and the London Sunday Times Magazine. The Arbuses separated amicably, 1959; that year Diane began keeping notebooks of her writings with ideas for pictures and other interests. By early 1960s discovered Hubert's Museum (flea circus in Times Square) and Club 82 (a female-impersonator club in downtown Manhattan); revisited these sites extensively to photograph. Met Walker Evans through Marvin Israel, 1962. Received first Guggenheim Fellowship for "American Rites, Manners and Customs", 1963; second Guggenheim Fellowship for "The Interior Landscape," 1966. Began teaching at Parsons School of Design, New York City. Included in MoMA exhibition New Documents, 1967. Hired by John Szarkowski at Museum of Modern Art, New York, to research exhibition on news photography, From the Picture Press, 1969-70. Produced with Marvin Israel a limited edition portfolio of 10 photographs (A book of ten photographs), 1969-70; published "Five Photographs by Diane Arbus," Artforum, May 1971. Taught a private master class at Westbeth, the artists' cooperative housing where she lived, 1971. Died by suicide in her New York City home, July 28, 1971. Subject of posthumous retrospective at Museum of Modern Art, New York, with accompanying monograph Diane Arbus (1972).

Individual Exhibitions

Note: Arbus's sparse exhibition history and the relative lack of scholarship on her is due in part to the control The Estate of Diane Arbus has maintained over her work including exhibitions and reproductions of it. The major published works have all been approved by and often edited by Doon Arbus, who controls her mother's estate.

1972 Diane Arbus; Museum of Modern Art, New York (traveling retrospective)

2003 Diane Arbus: Family Albums; Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, South Hadley, Massachusetts (traveling)

2004 Diane Arbus Revelations; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; San
Francisco, California; traveling to Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; and Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Selected Group Exhibitions

1955 (with Allan Arbus) The Family of Man; Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York
1965 Recent Acquisitions: Photography; Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York
Invitational Exhibition: 10 American Photographers; School of Fine Arts,
University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee

1967 New Documents: Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand; Museum of Modern Art; New York, New York

1969 Thirteen Photographers; Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, New York
Human Concern/Personal Torment: The Grotesque in American Art; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York
New Photography U.S.A.; Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York (traveling)
10 Photographers; U.S. Pavilion, Japan World Exhibition, Osaka, Japan

1971 Contemporary Photographs I; Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy

1977 Mirrors and Windows: American Photography since 1960; Museum of Modern Art; New York, New York

1989 On the Art of Fixing a Shadow: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Photography; National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. and Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois (and traveled to Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California)

Photography Until Now; Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York (traveled to the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio)

2003 Cruel and Tender: The Real in the Twentieth-Century Photograph; Tate Modern, London

Selected Works

Headless Man, N.Y.C. , 1961
Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. , 1962
A house on a hill, Hollywood, Cal. , 1962
The Junior Interstate Ballroom Dance Champions, Yonkers, N.Y. , 1963
Teenage couple on Hudson Street, N.Y.C. , 1963
A young man in curlers at home on West 20th Street, N.Y.C. , 1966
A family on their lawn one Sunday in Westchester, N.Y. , 1968
A naked man being a woman, N.Y.C. , 1968
Man at a parade on Fifth Avenue, N.Y.C. , 1969
A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y. , 1970
The King and Queen of a Senior Citizens' Dance, N.Y.C. , 1970
Mexican dwarf in his hotel room, N.Y.C. , 1970

Further Reading

Arbus, Diane, Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph, Millerton, New York: Aperture, 1972

Arbus, Diane, Diane Arbus: Untitled, edited by Doon Arbus and Yolanda Cuomo, afterword by Doon Arbus, Millerton, New York: Aperture, 1995

Arbus, Diane, and Thomas Southall, Diane Arbus: Magazine Work, edited by Doon Arbus and Marvin Israel, Millerton, New York: Aperture, 1984

Arbus, Diane, "Five Photographs by Diane Arbus," Artforum (May 1971)

Armstrong, Carol, "Biology, Destiny, Photography: Difference According to Diane Arbus,"October 66 (Fall 1993)

Bosworth, Patricia, Diane Arbus: A Biography, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984, reprinted in 1995 by W. W. Norton

Decarlo, Tessa, "A Fresh Look at Arbus," Smithsonian (May 2004)

Diane Arbus Revelations, essays by Sandra S. Phillips, Neil Selkirk, chronology by Elisabeth Sussman and Doon Arbus, afterword by Doon Arbus, (exh. cat.) San Francisco and New York: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Random House, and The Estate of Diane Arbus LLC, 2003

Goldman, Judith, "Diane Arbus: The Gap Between Intention and Effect," Art Journal34, no. 1 (Fall 1974)

Hirsch, Robert, Seizing the Light: A History of Photography, New York: McGraw Hill, 2000

Lee, Anthony W. and John Pultz, Diane Arbus: Family Albums, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003

Lord, Catherine, "What Becomes a Legend Most: The Short, Sad Career of Diane Arbus: Part I," Exposure 23, no. 3 (Fall 1985)

Rosenblum, Naomi, A History of Women Photographers, New York: Abbeville Press, 2000

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