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Diane Arbus: Purveyor Photographer Of The Weird And Wacky

Diane Arbus is an American photographer famed for documenting the underbelly of society in an unnerving yet intimate way, but were her strange portraits a lesson in empathy or an extension of her narcissism?

Photo of Diane Arbus, courtesy UCLA
Photo of Diane Arbus, courtesy UCLA

Diane Arbus was a photographer based in New York City in the 1960s and was best known for her unnerving black and white portraits. Her work unsettled people then just as it does now. Arbus’s subject of choice were social outcasts on the fringes of society. Through her work she expressed her own emotions, and often portrayed emotion that other artists at the time were not sure how to depict. Just as with many other artists, her career and subject choice stemmed from an unusual upbringing.

 

Diane Arbus Lived A Cushioned Childhood

Diane in Central Park, 1939
Diane in Central Park, 1939

Diane Arbus grew up in the midst of the Great Depression but was sheltered from its harsh effects by her wealthy family. Their wealth came from her mother’s family, who owned Russeks, an expensive Fifth Avenue department store. Her mother, Gertrude Russek, as a young Russek heiress, met her father, David Nemerov, where he was working in the advertising department of the department store. After they married, Nemerov quickly moved up the ranks until he was president of the entire company. 

The Nemerovs had three children, Diane being the middle child. The children spent a lot of time being raised by nannies, maids and hired help, rather than their own parents. Their mother had depression and was prone to nervous breakdowns, and her father was constantly working. She was particularly close with her brother Howard, who spurred Diane’s interests in creative and intellectual areas. Other than her brother, Arbus felt distant from her family and the lavish lifestyle that encapsulated them. 

 

Finding Love In A Hopeless Place

A self portrait of young Allan and Diane Arbus, 1947
A self portrait of young Allan and Diane Arbus, 1947

Although she felt so separated from the high-society lifestyle that encompassed her, this is where she met her husband. Diane met Allan Arbus when he was working in the advertising department of Russeks when she was thirteen and developed an unwavering obsession with him. 

The two married as soon as Diane turned eighteen, in 1941. Three years later, Allan was sent to India to photograph the effects of World War II. While Allan was serving in the war, Diane became preoccupied with photography. Allan had given her a camera as a wedding gift. Her early work involved posing her friends and family, her newborn daughter, Doon, and urban scenes that captured her attention, like empty street corners or unoccupied store windows. 

Self-portrait with daughter, Doon, 1945
Self-portrait with daughter, Doon, 1945

When Allan returned to New York, the couple decided to go into the photography business together and turn their hobbies into careers. They shot primarily posed models for fashion magazines like Glamour and Vogue. 

 

A New Approach

Photo of Allan and Diane Arbus, 1950s
Photo of Allan and Diane Arbus, 1950s

The pair had a successful photographic career, until one day Diane announced she was done with the high fashion business. There was much more to photography that she wanted to discover. 

Around this time, Diane separated from Allan and took their two daughters – Doon and Amy – with her. She moved to a house in the West Village of NYC and chopped off all of her hair, taking on the recognizable style she would have until her death. Allan continued with the fashion photography business on his own. The two remained amicable amidst the split, and they continued to share a darkroom to develop their film. 

Arbus continued to focus her lens on people, but without the posing, lights, or high fashion. She set out onto the streets of New York, taking photos of anyone who caught her attention. 

 

Seeing The World In A New Light

A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, NYC 1966. courtesy MOCA
A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, NYC 1966. courtesy MOCA

In her rebellion against fashion photography, she never sought to capture people in their best light. Her focus was on capturing people in their most unraveled, unnerving, relatable state. She shot her photos with a Rolleiflex, a square cropped camera with a chest level viewfinder that she looked down into rather than an eye level viewfinder. This allowed her to get right up into the face of whoever she was photographing and make a connection with them, rather than sneakily taking a photo from the sidelines. This is how she captured some of her most famous images of old women caught off guard on the bus, disgruntled families with children, and lovers sitting on benches, hands tightly interwoven, in Central Park.  

Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962
Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962

One example is one of her most famous photos of a young boy in Central Park holding a fake grenade. Arbus took multiple photos of the boy, some with him in more jovial poses, but the one she chose to develop was one with the boy’s face crumpled into a grimace, one hand clenched around the grenade at his side and one contorted into an upturned claw. 

 

A Gang Of Misfits

Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, Long Island, 1959
Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, Long Island, 1959

Rather than those who had fallen unwittingly into the clutches of poverty or depravity, Arbus’ work focused on those who plunged in headfirst. People like her who were fed up with conventional society and wanted a life that was more unconventional. 

She took photos of female impersonators in their dressing rooms, heavily tattooed greasers, circus performers, people with physical birth defects like dwarfism, and interracial couples. All of this may seem relatively normal in this day and age as representation in the media has drastically increased, but in the 1950s, this was racy, controversial material. Many of them were happy to be photographed, as they rarely received any attention other than negative. 

She was addicted to living on the edge and finding the perfect shot of her next subject. She would often photograph subjects for hours, waiting for the moment they became completely unwound. Only then would she be satisfied with her shot. She entered the homes of strangers to immerse herself in the intricacies of their daily life. She blended in and waited for the moment that her subjects forgot she was there. Hunting down subjects on the fringes of society was her drug, and she was constantly pursuing the high. 

A Jewish giant at home with his parents, in the Bronx, N.Y., 1970, courtesy Princeton Art Museum
A Jewish giant at home with his parents, in the Bronx, N.Y., 1970, courtesy Princeton Art Museum

Although sometimes she did seek to push her subjects to their limits, at other times she did the exact opposite and pushed herself past her own limits. Arbus was known for meeting her subjects right where they are to make them feel comfortable. For instance, when photographing an elderly nudist couple in their home, she stripped down herself, making sure her and her subjects were on the same level. 

What was most interesting about Arbus’s work was that while her photographs of those on the fringes of society made her subjects seem more human and relatable, her photos of typical American life seemed tense, eerie, and alien. She seemed to find more reality in her interactions with the “freaks” than with subjects that resembled her own pedigreed past. 

 

One Girl, Two Worlds

Albino sword swallower at a carnival, MD. 1970, courtesy Yale Art Gallery
Albino sword swallower at a carnival, MD. 1970, courtesy Yale Art Gallery

She continued to navigate two worlds; one foot was firmly planted in participating in the abnormal, sometimes dangerous world of her subjects, the other still grounded in remnants of her old life. She was close with other famous photographers of the time like Richard Avedon, and still photographed celebrities and models for magazines like Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar, only now using her own signature style. 

Diane’s grant letter to the Guggenheim
Diane’s grant letter to the Guggenheim

She pursued the subject matter of ritual and ceremony in American life throughout the 1960s, primarily through a fellowship with the Guggenheim. She applied to a fellowship program to, “photograph the considerable ceremonies of our present,” she wrote in her grant letter. “I want to gather them, like somebody’s grandmother putting up preserves, because they will have been so beautiful.” Arbus was awarded two Guggenheim grants between 1963 and 1967, and used this to pursue her desired subjects with more fervor.

Triplets in their bedroom, New Jersey. 1963, NGA
Triplets in their bedroom, New Jersey. 1963, NGA

The first major public debut of her work was in New Documents, a photography exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. The exhibition was meant to show a shift in documentary photography to a much more crass, straightforward, casual style. Her photos were featured alongside the work of Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander, two other well-known photographers of the late 1960s. 

 

Diane Arbus’s Final Years

five people in costume
Untitled (49), 1970–71

As she continued to connect with her questionable subjects, she got sucked further and further into a dangerous world. She slowly slipped out of the celebrity scene where her peers resided and she drifted towards darker subject matter. 

This makes her final subject matter even more fascinating than it was on the surface. She chose to focus on mentally ill women in psychiatric wards. From 1969 to 1971, she visited numerous facilities and took photos of these women playing together in sprawling, grassy lawns, wearing Halloween masks, and dressed up as princesses. She commented to her daughter, Amy that these women looked like they were her age but acted like toddlers.  

Arbus was notorious for writing in an appointment book, where she would make lists of potential photos, write poetry, and keep track of her more mundane, familial tasks. Dynamic prose entries were often juxtaposed with lines reading “Amy – birthday present.” Her final entry in her appointment book read, “Last Supper.” This final note was her one allusion to her tragic suicide in 1971, at the age of 48. 

Diane Arbus in 1971, photograph by Eva Rubenstein
Diane Arbus in 1971, photograph by Eva Rubenstein

After her death, Arbus’s popularity skyrocketed. She had only sold a handful of photos while alive, but requests to purchase her work grew exponentially postmortem. While her photos were perceived as strange and uncanny in life, the public began to see it as thoughtful and compelling after she died. 

Critics were, and still continue to be, split when regarding Arbus’s work. Some found it narcissistic, cold and exploitative of her more vulnerable subjects. Others called it stunningly empathetic and inclusive, allowing people on the fringes of society to have the spotlight. It is also widely accepted that Arbus used photography as a means to discover herself and understand the world around her. Her subjects and their experiences became an extension of her.

Regardless of her intent, it is clear that Arbus was telling an important story through her photos and played an essential role in both the development of photography and society. She paved the way for other artists and photographers to explore subjects that were uncanny, unsettling, and off the beaten path. Her work, along with the work of other photographers of the 60s, also led to the perception of documentary style photography as an art form. Diane Arbus and her photography continue to boggle and inspire minds around the world.

Photo of Diane Arbus, courtesy UCLA
Photo of Diane Arbus, courtesy UCLA

Diane Arbus was a photographer based in New York City in the 1960s and was best known for her unnerving black and white portraits. Her work unsettled people then just as it does now. Arbus’s subject of choice were social outcasts on the fringes of society. Through her work she expressed her own emotions, and often portrayed emotion that other artists at the time were not sure how to depict. Just as with many other artists, her career and subject choice stemmed from an unusual upbringing.

 

Diane Arbus Lived A Cushioned Childhood

Diane in Central Park, 1939
Diane in Central Park, 1939

Diane Arbus grew up in the midst of the Great Depression but was sheltered from its harsh effects by her wealthy family. Their wealth came from her mother’s family, who owned Russeks, an expensive Fifth Avenue department store. Her mother, Gertrude Russek, as a young Russek heiress, met her father, David Nemerov, where he was working in the advertising department of the department store. After they married, Nemerov quickly moved up the ranks until he was president of the entire company. 

The Nemerovs had three children, Diane being the middle child. The children spent a lot of time being raised by nannies, maids and hired help, rather than their own parents. Their mother had depression and was prone to nervous breakdowns, and her father was constantly working. She was particularly close with her brother Howard, who spurred Diane’s interests in creative and intellectual areas. Other than her brother, Arbus felt distant from her family and the lavish lifestyle that encapsulated them. 

 

Finding Love In A Hopeless Place

A self portrait of young Allan and Diane Arbus, 1947
A self portrait of young Allan and Diane Arbus, 1947

Although she felt so separated from the high-society lifestyle that encompassed her, this is where she met her husband. Diane met Allan Arbus when he was working in the advertising department of Russeks when she was thirteen and developed an unwavering obsession with him. 

The two married as soon as Diane turned eighteen, in 1941. Three years later, Allan was sent to India to photograph the effects of World War II. While Allan was serving in the war, Diane became preoccupied with photography. Allan had given her a camera as a wedding gift. Her early work involved posing her friends and family, her newborn daughter, Doon, and urban scenes that captured her attention, like empty street corners or unoccupied store windows. 

Self-portrait with daughter, Doon, 1945
Self-portrait with daughter, Doon, 1945

When Allan returned to New York, the couple decided to go into the photography business together and turn their hobbies into careers. They shot primarily posed models for fashion magazines like Glamour and Vogue. 

 

A New Approach

Photo of Allan and Diane Arbus, 1950s
Photo of Allan and Diane Arbus, 1950s

The pair had a successful photographic career, until one day Diane announced she was done with the high fashion business. There was much more to photography that she wanted to discover. 

Around this time, Diane separated from Allan and took their two daughters – Doon and Amy – with her. She moved to a house in the West Village of NYC and chopped off all of her hair, taking on the recognizable style she would have until her death. Allan continued with the fashion photography business on his own. The two remained amicable amidst the split, and they continued to share a darkroom to develop their film. 

Arbus continued to focus her lens on people, but without the posing, lights, or high fashion. She set out onto the streets of New York, taking photos of anyone who caught her attention. 

 

Seeing The World In A New Light

A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, NYC 1966. courtesy MOCA
A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, NYC 1966. courtesy MOCA

In her rebellion against fashion photography, she never sought to capture people in their best light. Her focus was on capturing people in their most unraveled, unnerving, relatable state. She shot her photos with a Rolleiflex, a square cropped camera with a chest level viewfinder that she looked down into rather than an eye level viewfinder. This allowed her to get right up into the face of whoever she was photographing and make a connection with them, rather than sneakily taking a photo from the sidelines. This is how she captured some of her most famous images of old women caught off guard on the bus, disgruntled families with children, and lovers sitting on benches, hands tightly interwoven, in Central Park.  

Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962
Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962

One example is one of her most famous photos of a young boy in Central Park holding a fake grenade. Arbus took multiple photos of the boy, some with him in more jovial poses, but the one she chose to develop was one with the boy’s face crumpled into a grimace, one hand clenched around the grenade at his side and one contorted into an upturned claw. 

 

A Gang Of Misfits

Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, Long Island, 1959
Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, Long Island, 1959

Rather than those who had fallen unwittingly into the clutches of poverty or depravity, Arbus’ work focused on those who plunged in headfirst. People like her who were fed up with conventional society and wanted a life that was more unconventional. 

She took photos of female impersonators in their dressing rooms, heavily tattooed greasers, circus performers, people with physical birth defects like dwarfism, and interracial couples. All of this may seem relatively normal in this day and age as representation in the media has drastically increased, but in the 1950s, this was racy, controversial material. Many of them were happy to be photographed, as they rarely received any attention other than negative. 

She was addicted to living on the edge and finding the perfect shot of her next subject. She would often photograph subjects for hours, waiting for the moment they became completely unwound. Only then would she be satisfied with her shot. She entered the homes of strangers to immerse herself in the intricacies of their daily life. She blended in and waited for the moment that her subjects forgot she was there. Hunting down subjects on the fringes of society was her drug, and she was constantly pursuing the high. 

A Jewish giant at home with his parents, in the Bronx, N.Y., 1970, courtesy Princeton Art Museum
A Jewish giant at home with his parents, in the Bronx, N.Y., 1970, courtesy Princeton Art Museum

Although sometimes she did seek to push her subjects to their limits, at other times she did the exact opposite and pushed herself past her own limits. Arbus was known for meeting her subjects right where they are to make them feel comfortable. For instance, when photographing an elderly nudist couple in their home, she stripped down herself, making sure her and her subjects were on the same level. 

What was most interesting about Arbus’s work was that while her photographs of those on the fringes of society made her subjects seem more human and relatable, her photos of typical American life seemed tense, eerie, and alien. She seemed to find more reality in her interactions with the “freaks” than with subjects that resembled her own pedigreed past. 

 

One Girl, Two Worlds

Albino sword swallower at a carnival, MD. 1970, courtesy Yale Art Gallery
Albino sword swallower at a carnival, MD. 1970, courtesy Yale Art Gallery

She continued to navigate two worlds; one foot was firmly planted in participating in the abnormal, sometimes dangerous world of her subjects, the other still grounded in remnants of her old life. She was close with other famous photographers of the time like Richard Avedon, and still photographed celebrities and models for magazines like Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar, only now using her own signature style. 

Diane’s grant letter to the Guggenheim
Diane’s grant letter to the Guggenheim

She pursued the subject matter of ritual and ceremony in American life throughout the 1960s, primarily through a fellowship with the Guggenheim. She applied to a fellowship program to, “photograph the considerable ceremonies of our present,” she wrote in her grant letter. “I want to gather them, like somebody’s grandmother putting up preserves, because they will have been so beautiful.” Arbus was awarded two Guggenheim grants between 1963 and 1967, and used this to pursue her desired subjects with more fervor.

Triplets in their bedroom, New Jersey. 1963, NGA
Triplets in their bedroom, New Jersey. 1963, NGA

The first major public debut of her work was in New Documents, a photography exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. The exhibition was meant to show a shift in documentary photography to a much more crass, straightforward, casual style. Her photos were featured alongside the work of Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander, two other well-known photographers of the late 1960s. 

 

Diane Arbus’s Final Years

five people in costume
Untitled (49), 1970–71

As she continued to connect with her questionable subjects, she got sucked further and further into a dangerous world. She slowly slipped out of the celebrity scene where her peers resided and she drifted towards darker subject matter. 

This makes her final subject matter even more fascinating than it was on the surface. She chose to focus on mentally ill women in psychiatric wards. From 1969 to 1971, she visited numerous facilities and took photos of these women playing together in sprawling, grassy lawns, wearing Halloween masks, and dressed up as princesses. She commented to her daughter, Amy that these women looked like they were her age but acted like toddlers.  

Arbus was notorious for writing in an appointment book, where she would make lists of potential photos, write poetry, and keep track of her more mundane, familial tasks. Dynamic prose entries were often juxtaposed with lines reading “Amy – birthday present.” Her final entry in her appointment book read, “Last Supper.” This final note was her one allusion to her tragic suicide in 1971, at the age of 48. 

Diane Arbus in 1971, photograph by Eva Rubenstein
Diane Arbus in 1971, photograph by Eva Rubenstein

After her death, Arbus’s popularity skyrocketed. She had only sold a handful of photos while alive, but requests to purchase her work grew exponentially postmortem. While her photos were perceived as strange and uncanny in life, the public began to see it as thoughtful and compelling after she died. 

Critics were, and still continue to be, split when regarding Arbus’s work. Some found it narcissistic, cold and exploitative of her more vulnerable subjects. Others called it stunningly empathetic and inclusive, allowing people on the fringes of society to have the spotlight. It is also widely accepted that Arbus used photography as a means to discover herself and understand the world around her. Her subjects and their experiences became an extension of her.

Regardless of her intent, it is clear that Arbus was telling an important story through her photos and played an essential role in both the development of photography and society. She paved the way for other artists and photographers to explore subjects that were uncanny, unsettling, and off the beaten path. Her work, along with the work of other photographers of the 60s, also led to the perception of documentary style photography as an art form. Diane Arbus and her photography continue to boggle and inspire minds around the world.

Jenna Ross
Jenna Ross
Jenna Ross is a contributing journalist and photographer with an extensive interest in the history of photography and art. She has a BA in Photojournalism from California State University, Fullerton. When she isn’t working, she loves to travel, and always takes her camera along with her.

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