Diane Arbus: Life, Photos, Locations

Posted on February 8, 2012 by peter bell

Lauro Morales, a Mexican Dwarf, in His Hotel Room in New York City

Few photographers have created as much controversy, or as many iconic images, as the American photographer Diane Arbus.  During her life, her work challenged preconceptions of photography.  Her work had many approaches, but she often focused on marginalized or peripheral roles in society (circus performers, drag queens, nudists, the developmentally disabled).  After her death, the images she made still bring into question the role of art in society, the conventions of beauty, and the responsibility of artistic methods.  While Diane (pronounced “dee-ann”) Arbus is no longer with us, her work is still as hauntingly poignant as when the shutter clicked fifty years ago.

Diane Nemerov was born March 14, 1923 in New York City to David Nemerov and Gertrude Russek Nemerov, a wealthy Jewish couple who owned Russek’s Department Store on Fifth Avenue.  An upscale department store that initially specialized in fur and then women’s clothing, Russek’s slogan was “An Institution of Paris Fashions.”

Diane grew up in an insulated world of privilege during the Great Depression.  On her upbringing she later remarked, “One of the things I felt I suffered from as a kid was that I never felt adversity. I was confined in a sense of unreality…And the sense of being immune was, ludicrous as it seems, a painful one.”  Sontag, Susan. On Photography.

Diane attended the prestigious Ivy League prep school, Fieldston. Her teachers recognized her as a talented painter, a gifted writer, and a voracious reader.  Gibson, Gregory.  Hubert’s Freaks

At the age of thirteen, while at her father’s store, Diane met the marketing department photographer, Allan Arbus.   Instead of attending college after graduation (as her parents wished), Diane immediately married Allan after graduation.  She was eighteen years old, and he was twenty-three.

In 1941, Allan gave Diane her first camera- a Graflex twin reflex.  They would attend photography shows together at the Stieglitz gallery, An American Place.  Allan enlisted in the Signal Corps photography division during World War II, and Diane sent 5 x 7 photos of her growing pregnancy.  Their first child, Doon, was born in 1945.

In 1946, the couple formed a commercial photography company named “Diane & Allan Arbus,” specializing in fashion and magazine photography.  Diane served as art director, and Allan handled the photography and technical aspects.  They created over 280 pages of fashion photography throughout the years.  Another child, Amy, was born in 1954.  In 1955, the Arbuses had a photograph featured in the MOMA exhibit The Family of Man, curated by Edward Steichen.

A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx

By 1956, Diane had become disillusioned with fashion photography.  She quit the business that year.  In 1957, Arbus attended a photography course taught by Lisette Model at the New School for Social Research.  This course turned into a mentorship for Arbus, with Model providing artistic inspiration as well as technical advice.

Diane and Allan separated in 1958, although he continued to support her financially and assist with photograph production, encouraging her endeavors.  They would not divorce until 1969.

By 1959, Arbus had begun to develop her photographic approach using a Nikon 35mm.  She would spend time at Hubert’s Museum in Times Square, a “dime museum” that featured a basement sideshow.  Arbus would often maintain long-term relationships with her subjects to get the photo she wanted.  For example, she met Eddie Carmel in 1959 at Hubert’s.  It wasn’t until 1970 that she snapped his portrait for A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx.

By 1962, Arbus had taken up residence in the West Village, and switched her camera to a twin-lens Rolleiflex to create square, detailed images.  She continued to hone her techniques at Huberts, but also frequented the drag queen/female impersonator shows at Club 82 in the East Village.  The club was very popular in the gay community, and also attracted a diverse clientele of photographic possibilities.

While some critics of the era saw these photos as “people who are bizarre, in sexual disgrace, emotionally vacant”  (Sontag, Susan. On Photography), many others have praised them as breakthrough images for the transgender community.

In 1963, Arbus was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship for a project on “American rites, manners, and customs,” which was renewed in 1966.

During the summer of 1965, Arbus would photograph at Washington Square Park, creating a number of iconic images.

Woman with a locket in Washington Square Park

The first major exhibition of Arbus’s work was in 1967 for the New Documents show at the MoMA.  Curated by John Szarkowski, and also featuring Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander.  Arbus’s photos were shown in a separate room, evidently too emotionally charged to be among the other artists.  The public reaction was intense; the guards had to clean the spit off her photos in the morning from the previous day’s more disgusted patrons.

From 1968 to 1971, Arbus shot a series of untitled photos at the Vineland Training School in New Jersey.  Some of the most challenging of Arbus’s work, the photos were shot in a softer light, and the featured subjects were developmentally disabled residents.  Arbus initially thought the photos “lyric and tender and pretty”, but by 1971 had confessed to Lisette Model that hated them.

In 1971, Arbus taught a photography course at the Westbeth Artists Community, where she lived. On July 26, 1971, while living at Westbeth, Arbus took her own life by ingesting barbiturates and slashing her wrists with a razor.  Her body was found two days later by artist Martin Israel; Arbus was 48 years old.

In 1973, a retrospective of Arbus’s work was assembled at the MoMA.  The show had the largest public turnout in seventeen years (since The Family of Man show).  A book of eighty photographs was produced by Doon Arbus and Martin Israel called Diane Arbus.  After completing a circuit through the US and Canada, it was estimated that 7 million people attended the show.

The wake of Arbus’s contribution to photography has yet to crest.  Her more iconic photos, which originally sold for hundreds of dollars, are now routinely sold for half a million dollars.  The Arbus estate, managed by daughter Doon, has kept a fairly tight grasp on the commercial use, further printing, and release of all of Diane Arbus’s material.  The result has been a clamor of attention whenever there is new material released.

Arbus’s work has often been criticized for being exploitative to her subjects, of taking advantage of “freaks” (a word used both by Arbus and her critics) for her own distorted vision.  Her techniques were bizarre, her subject matter was intentionally outrageous, and her composition is incredibly aggressive.

“Much of modern art is devoted to lowering the threshold of what is terrible,” Susan Sontag wrote in her scathing review of the 1973 Arbus show (I actually agree with this, but only if you replace modern art with 90% of television).

But maybe that’s the beauty of these photos.  In 2012, they aren’t nearly as threatening as they were in the ‘60s and ‘70s.  The social shift to a more pluralistic and diversity-accepting society has made some of the early criticisms…well, kind of head-scratchers.  Was the reaction to her work as “ugly,” simply deep-rooted xenophobia?  Was Arbus’s master plan to use portraits of the most marginalized members of society to point out our own hypocrisies, all while doing it in a lovingly delicate, deceptively naïve way?  There’s no way I’ll ever know.

Sometimes you just have to see things at face value, and like Diane Arbus must have felt, I can’t look away.

New York City

New Jersey

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