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A Look Into the Life and Work of Diane Arbus

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I’m Martin Kaninsky from All About Street Photography, and in this video and article I am going to talk about a photographer who is one of America’s best-known and also most controversial photographers, sometimes referred to as a “photographer of freaks.” It’s a look at the life and work of Diane Arbus.

Diane was born Diane Nemerov in 1923 in New York to Jewish parents who were immigrants from Soviet Russia. They were quite rich, as they owned Russeks, a department store on Fifth Avenue. Thanks to that, she was not affected by the Great Depression.

Being a kid in a wealthy family also however meant she was mostly raised by maids. It was perhaps the environment she lived in that she somewhat separated herself from the family. Even though her parents didn’t directly raise her, they had an indirect influence on her life. After her father retired, he became a painter. Her sister became a designer and sculptor, and her brother a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. Diane herself started painting but quit just after she finished high school.

Arbus married relatively young at the age of 18 to a man named Allan Arbus. They both worked in a commercial photography business for a while from 1946 to 1956. Unfortunately, the marriage didn’t work out and they got divorced in 1969. Her husband left and became an actor. You might actually remember him from the TV series M*A*S*H in which he played Dr. Sidney Freedman.

But it is not Diane Arbus’ personal life that I want to talk about — let’s look into her photography career.

Arbus received her first camera (a Graflex camera) just after she married at the age of 18. Her husband was a photographer for the U.S. Army Signal Corps in World War II. She started taking photography classes with Berenice Abbot, a photographer best known for her portraits.

In 1946, Diane and her husband started Diane & Allan Arbus, a commercial photography business where she would have the role of art director. She was responsible for concepts and models, which wasn’t a dream come true for her as she saw her position as very unfulfilling. Even though Diane and Allan both didn’t particularly like fashion photography, the business produced photographs for Russek’s advertisements and also for fashion magazines such as Vogue, Glamour, or Seventeen.

The duo was pretty successful. A photograph that they made for Vogue magazine of a father and son reading a newspaper was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “The Family of Man” in 1955.

At first, Diane Arbus admired the grainy look the camera and film were able to produce. Her camera of choice was first a Nikon with a 35mm lens that she used for photographing New York City. Sometimes around 1962, she switched to a twin-lens reflex Rolleiflex camera. The medium format camera came to be one of Arbus’ compositional signatures.

She explained this transition saying:

In the beginning of photographing, I used to make very grainy things. I’d be fascinated by what the grain did because it would make a kind of tapestry of all these little dots… But when I’d been working for a while with all these dots, I suddenly wanted terribly to get through there. I wanted to see the real differences between things… I began to get terribly hyped on clarity.

Diane Arbus later began shooting what we can now call her own style of street photography. One of the important mentors in her career was Lisette Model, an Austrian-born photographer mostly known for her street photography. She later said Arbus came to her telling her she cannot photograph.

“I want to photograph what is evil,” Arbus told Model, who noted that “[Arbus] was determined to reveal what others had been taught to turn their backs on.”

The scheme typical for her photography is a frontal portrait in square format. She was one of the pioneers of daylight flash use, which she used to isolate her subjects. What she first liked about it was how it alters light and reveals things you don’t normally see. She wanted to have stillness in her photograph, and that is why she always posed her subjects either on the street or in their homes.

Arbus made the subjects look directly to the camera to “freeze” the picture. However, as we can see in many of her picture the effect was quite the opposite. Many of her pictures look spontaneous.

Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962 is probably one of the most famous ones. The image is unusual and (I would say) a little disturbing. I mean, seeing a kid who looks tense and angry in a pose with his teeth clenched and holding a hand grenade in one hand with the second hand in a shape of claw-like gesture is a bit… unusual. Standing alone makes him isolated from others in the park.

The photo is considered to be one of the most important and influential images of 20th-century art and post-modernist art theory. When we look at the contact sheet, we find that Arbus took plenty of “normal” photographs of the kid in the park smiling and playing around. However, when it came to picking the final image, she chose the most expressive one.

The boy in the photograph is named Colin Wood, and he later said:

She catches me in a moment of exasperation. It’s true, I was exasperated. My parents had divorced and there was a general feeling of loneliness, a sense of being abandoned. I was just exploding. She saw that and it’s like…commiseration. She captured the loneliness of everyone. It’s all people who want to connect but don’t know how to connect. And I think that’s how she felt about herself. She felt damaged and she hoped that by wallowing in that feeling, through photography, she could transcend herself.

What’s interesting is that more than shooting random subjects she met on the street, Arbus was often trying to develop a personal relationship with the subjects and photograph them over time. She started to photograph much differently than was common until then. The intention behind it was to be original and unique.

A very young baby, N.Y.C. 1968‘ is a photograph of Anderson Cooper, CNN correspondent and son of Gloria Vanderbilt. It was one of the photographs Arbus took for Harper’s Bazaar in 1968. She knew the parents, so she asked about coming over and spending some time photography the newly born baby.

She returned repeatedly over 3 weeks and shot a lot of pictures before finally picked the published one. Cooper himself doesn’t find it disturbing. The photographs from Arbus are reportedly in his room alongside a note by Diane.

”Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, NY, 1970,” is a photograph by Arbus of Eddie Carmel standing in his parents’ living room. It is an archetype of Arbus’s photographs. As a teen, even though Carmel was normal height during his childhood, Carmel started to grow uncontrollably as a result of acromegaly. He grew to be 8’9″, or 270cm. The photo looks like a preparation for the family portrait.

For me, the vignetting intensifies his size and the voyeuristic feel from the photograph, as if you’re sneaking in someone’s home and watching them through the keyhole. Unfortunately, Carmel died at the age of 36, just 2 years after Arbus took this photograph. Arbus believed she got what she called every mother’s nightmare.

“You know how every mother has nightmares when she’s pregnant that her baby will be born a monster?” Arbus says. “I think I got that in the mother’s face as she glares up at Eddie, thinking, Oh my God, no.”

One of my favorite shots is “The Girl in Her Circus Costume, Md. 1970.” Somehow I just can’t avoid the comparison of the Wonderwoman from the Marvel universe and for me, this photo is a representation of the 70s and how would they probably portray the subject at that time.

The subjects Arbus photographed were often people with troubled lives, people from the underground or just people who were not accepted or respected by the rest of society. She often sympathized with them probably because it was often something she wasn’t able to experience in her life — the subjects had completely different backgrounds than she had.

Arbus would shoot strippers, carnival performers, transvestites, members of the LGBT community, nudists, or people with mental disabilities. She said the subjects in her pictures were more important for her than the picture itself.

“Some people like to think of [Arbus] as cynical,” said photographer Edmund Shea. “That’s a total misconception, she was very emotionally open. She was very intense and direct, and people related to that.”

Perhaps the most valuable thing for her was not the photograph but the event of visiting someone and the process of making the photographs. I wouldn’t say she was redefining beauty but perhaps showing the space between how the people wanted to be seen and how they were seen. When we want to learn about how influential she was, I think it is best to use the words of art critic Robert Hughes: “Arbus’s work has had such an influence on other photographers that it is already hard to remember how original it was.”

Arbus was twice awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship; first in 1963 for a project called “American Rites, Manners, and Customs” and then again in 1966. During the 60s, Arbus worked for magazines but also took all kinds of commissions — she had to do it since it was pretty difficult at that time to make living just by selling fine art photography. Even though she was a recognized artist, her prints usually sold for $100 or less.

As she became even more recognized as an artist, she took fewer magazine assignments and she also taught photography in New York City and Rhode Island. She was the first photographer to be featured in Artforum, an international magazine focusing on contemporary art.

She had her first big exhibition at the Museum of Modern art in New Documents in 1967 which was a documentary photography exhibition curated by John Szarkowski. Thirty-two of her photographs were chosen for the exhibition that represented a new direction in photography: ordinary subjects with a snapshot-like look. The exhibition presented works of three photographers: Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, and Lee Friedlander. None of them was well known at that time.

Unfortunately, just like her mother, Arbus suffered from depression as well as hepatitis. She experienced mood swings and her then ex-husband even talked about “violent changes of mood”. In 1971, Arbus committed suicide at 48 years old.

Today, Arbus’ works are held in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among others.


About the author: Martin Kaninsky is a photographer, reviewer, and YouTuber based in Prague, Czech Republic. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Kaninsky runs the channel All About Street Photography. You can find more of his work on his website, Instagram, and YouTube channel.

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