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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Diane Arbus

Born: Diane Nemerov 
Other: Diane Nemerov Arbus 
Dates:  1923, 14 March - 1971, 26 July
Born:  US, NY, New York
Active:  US
Worked first in the fashion world with her husband Allan Arbus and then moved into documentary photography for magazines. Her best known work is the extensive series of portraits she took of people on the fringes of society: carnival performers, eccentrics, and people she tracked down from newspaper articles. Her photographs are far from exploitative and she had a genuine rapport with her subjects many of whom she kept in contact with for years.
On Dec 18, 2007 it was announced in the New York Times that the complete personal archives of Diane Arbus have been donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Preparing biographies

Biography provided by Focal Press 
In her teens, Arbus worked in fashion photography with husband Allan Arbus, eventually being hired by Harper’s Bazaar. Studying with Lisette Model (1955–1957) produced a profound shift in her work. Arbus pioneered a confrontational street style that relied on frontal light and often a flash to sharply depict people who seemed willing to reveal their hidden selves for the camera. Accused of appealing to peoples’ voyeuristic nature, Arbus believed that "a photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know." Her curiosity led her to unblinkingly photograph people at the margins of society making images not of them as individuals but as archetypes of human circumstance. Controversy followed Arbus as she broke down public personas by pushing the boundaries of what was permissible and heroically visualizing her subjects. Arbus’ final series of retardates, whose being and identity take us to an edge of human experience, created a sensation by challenging the definition of self and confronting viewers with the "secret" fact that nobody is "normal." 
(Author: Robert Hirsch - Independent scholar and writer) 
Michael Peres (Editor-in-Chief), 2007, Focal Encyclopedia of Photography, 4th edition, (Focal Press) [ISBN-10: 0240807405, ISBN-13: 978-0240807409] 
(Used with permission) 

Further research

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Garry Winogrand
Diane Arbus, Love-In, Central Park, New York, 1969, from 15 Big Shots 
1969 (taken) 1983 (print)
Family history 
If you are related to this photographer and interested in tracking down your extended family we can place a note here for you to help. It is free and you would be amazed who gets in touch.

Visual indexes

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Supplemental information

Arbus, Diane Born: Nemerov, Diane © Gerhard Bissell, 2006
This biography is the intellectual property of the author, Gerhard Bissell. You are welcome to quote passages from it for non-profit purposes as long as you clearly refer to the website and to the author. If you require the whole text or lengthy passages of more than three paragraphs and/or intend commercial use, please seek permission from the author via Alan Griffiths.

Born in New York, 14 March 1923, committed suicide there, 26 July 1971.
Daughter of David Nemerov and Gertrude Russek; sister of the future Poet Laureate Howard Nemerov. Her father was a director of the fur and fashion department store Russek's on New York's Fifth Avenue. Cocooned in a wealthy family environment, Diane feels alienated from "real life" as a child. 14 years old, she starts a romance with Allan Arbus which eventually leads to their marriage in 1941. At around this time, the couple develop an interest in photography. Diane takes classes with Berenice Abbott and acts as a model for Allan's early fashion shots, some of which are used in advertisements for Russek's. Their first daughter, Doon, is born in 1945 while Allan serves abroad in the army. Upon his return, the couple run a fashion photography business with Allan behind the camera while Diane mainly fulfils the role of artistic director in charge of the set up. 1954 birth of the second daughter, Amy, who later became a photographer in her own right. 1955 Diane studies with Alexey Brodovitch. Considering her role within the business too inferior, in 1956 she withdraws from the partnership with Allan. Studying with Lisette Model, 1956-58, Diane feels liberated from the constraints of commercial photography. While still keeping close contact, Diane and Allan separate in 1959, and she enters into an intimate relationship with the painter Marvin Israel. From 1959 onwards, she keeps a detailed note book to sketch out ideas for photographic projects of her own. Frequently, she tries to get magazines interested in her ideas, but also accepts other commissioned work from them. Also, she now tends to avoid the cropping of pictures and would soon only print full frames as composed within the camera.
The Vertical Journey. Six Movements of a Moment within the Heart of the City, a project for Esquire published in July 1960 about the variety of New York's social groups leads to her involvement with a number of fringe cultures. Another early key article about eccentrics, The Full Circle, published by Harper's Bazaar, is to follow in November 1961. Here, as several times in the future, the photos would be accompanied by her own, often quite brilliantly written text.
Around 1962 she switches from the 35mm camera to a square format but finds the change initially difficult. 1962 Arbus receives a Guggenheim Foundation grant for a project about American Rites, Manners and Customs, 1966 a second one for a project entitled The Interior Landscape. Her prints now usually show an irregular black border around the motive. In 1967 she features together with Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand in John Szarkowski's ground breaking MoMA show New Documents. Still best of friends, Allan divorces her in 1969 and moves to Hollywood as a film actor. For Diane, apart from the loss of a friend close by, this also means taking full charge of the technical side of her photography, whereas up to that time she still heavily relied on Allan's expertise and darkroom equipment. The same year, invited by Peter Crookston to do some work for his magazine Nova, she spends some time in England. Shortly afterwards, she finally gains access to a New Jersey clinic for mentally retarded patients to embark on the project Untitled which she had been envisaging for a long time. In 1970, she issues her limited edition portfolio A Box of Ten Photographs, and also receives the Robert Leavitt Award of the American Society of Magazine Photographers. Of a depressive character, Diane particularly suffers from the dilemma of, on the one hand, finding critical acclaim, whilst due to the lack of financial security being forced into magazine and teaching assignments she clearly dislikes. Dragging on for months in 1970-71, the dithering about the purchase of a new camera which her creative genius requires but which she can hardly afford is symptomatic for her state of mind. Without a clear cause, she finally puts the longstanding turbulences of her psyche to rest by committing suicide.
Despite being already influential while still alive, Diane Arbus' importance would only be fully recognised after her death. While there is still controversy surrounding her work, she now widely enjoys a cult status. The foundation for this was laid in 1972, the year after her death, particularly through her retrospective show at the MoMA and the accompanying Aperture book edited by Doon Arbus and Marvin Israel - the most successful MoMA show since The Family of Man of 1955, and the best selling photography monograph ever, still being reprinted today.
From street photography and shoots in film theatres in the late 1950s, she soon turns to meticulously planned series, frequently concentrating on clearly defined groups of people in similar circumstances, e.g. circus actors, twins and triplets, nudists, winners and losers, and eccentrics in general, whereby she tends to emphasise the strangeness of her subjects.
With the human being at the heart of nearly all her work, she takes most photos with the knowledge and co-operation of the model who frequently poses and looks directly into the camera. Fascinated, Arbus shows her subjects in their own normality which is quite distinctly different from the average norm. Many times she would concentrate on a staged persona which often involves masking and unmasking, e.g. several sequences with strippers in the dressing room or transvestites in different stages of their transformation. Strolling around in New York's parks, she is intrigued by people with a strong physical presence which might even be heightened by heavy make up, e.g. Puerto Rican Woman with a Beauty Mark, N.Y.C. 1965.
As a common reproach against Arbus, her pictures are often described as being harsh, uncharitable, even brutal. It is undeniable that they are uncompromisingly direct. But a closer look also frequently reveals caring sympathy, particularly for the physically, psychologically or socially disadvantaged. A photo like A Jewish Giant at Home with his Parents in the Bronx, N.Y. 1970 emphasises not only the physical deterioration of Eddie Carmel (she previously took his picture some ten years earlier in much better health) but also the burden put on his parents' shoulders.
It is true, however, that Arbus seems to approach her photographic endeavours differently at two creative stages. In close proximity with the individual, while taking the photos, she can be compassionate and engages with the person. Later, isolated from the sitter, when choosing one frame of a sequence for printing, she would invariably pick the most expressive one, thereby frequently suggesting an extreme situation. So, as demonstrated by the contact sheet, the Child with a Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962, despite appearing deranged, is really an ordinary boy who just shows off for the camera. To some extent, this intensification might be related to the practice of her magazine work where she sometimes had to pick just one photo to illustrate the whole story. It also seems to be the case that on assignments which were not based on her own projects, she cared a lot less about developing a compassionate relationship with the sitter, as pointed out by Germaine Greer's bitter lament about the insensitive treatment she received from Arbus which nearly amounted to bullying.
Generally though, Arbus approaches people with a genuine interest for their personal circumstances and on many occasions tries to arrange further meetings in their homes where she would take further photos which range from simple posing to sexually explicit conduct. Public and private, ostentation and hidden realities are poles with which many of her images can be associated. A famous picture like Boy with a Straw Hat Waiting to March in a Pro-War Parade, N.Y.C. 1967 basically depicts a mask which is shown to the world. The boy's general attitude and slogans characterise him as part of a specific group and become just as much a uniform as nakedness serves as a uniform for the many nudist camp inhabitants. But deeper truths can be found for instance in the Identical Twins, Roselle, N.J. 1967 who are characterised as being twins again mainly by the uniformity of their clothing and haircut, while the facial expressions just underline their individuality despite being twins.
The dialectics between appearance and substance are fundamental for the understanding of Arbus' art. A little story Neil Selkirk tells is very revealing in this context: in 1972, when he was about to produce an exhibition print of A Family on their Lawn one Sunday in Westchester, N.Y. 1968, Diane's close friend Marvin Israel advised him to make the background trees appear "like a theatrical backdrop that might at any moment roll forward across the lawn" (Diane Arbus. Revelations, 2003, p. 270).
The contrast between a mask presented to the world and the true psychological state is harmonically resolved in Untitled 1970-71. No conflict exists between the public and private person or a conscious move away from the norm or a double life. The mental patients, some of which are shown in Halloween costumes, don't act strange to impress or deceive; instead, the attitudes and masks are part and parcel of their true state of mind. There is an innocence about these pictures which is devoid of social constraints. Again, one could see these images purely as a freak show; I would prefer to see them as moving and full of life. Some of the best in the series show the subjects with a big smile, at some you just have to smile back. Arbus was particularly satisfied with this series and considered producing a photo book; only decades after her death this materialised with the assistance of her daughter Doon in 1995.
Short bibliography:
Diane Arbus. An Aperture monograph, 1972 (numerous reprints)
Susan Sontag, On photography, 1977, pp. 27-48
Diane Arbus. Magazine Work, 1984
Patricia Bosworth, Diane Arbus. A biography, 1984
Diane Arbus. Revelations (exh. cat.), 2003 (truly a revelation, albeit a little hagiographic)
Anthony W. Lee/ John Pultz, Diane Arbus. Family albums (exh. cat.), 2003
My own entry on Arbus in Allgemeines Künstlerlexikon (World Biographical Dictionary of Artists - text in German; subscription required) contains an expanded bibliography
© Gerhard Bissell, 2006
This biography is the intellectual property of the author, Gerhard Bissell. You are welcome to quote passages from it for non-profit purposes as long as you clearly refer to the website and to the author. If you require the whole text or lengthy passages of more than three paragraphs and/or intend commercial use, please seek permission from the author via Alan Griffiths.  

Internet biographies

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Wikipedia has a biography of this photographer. Go to website
Getty Research, Los Angeles, USA has an ULAN (Union List of Artists Names Online) entry for this photographer. This is useful for checking names and they frequently provide a brief biography. Go to website
Grove Art Online ( has a biography of this artist. 
[NOTE: This is a subscription service and you will need to pay an annual fee to access the content.]
 Go to website
The Cleveland Museum of Art, USA has a biography on this photographer. [Scroll down the page on this website as the biography may not be immediately visible.] Go to website
The International Photographers Hall of Fame has provided a biography. Go to website

Internet resources

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Review of the Patricia Bosworth biography of Diane Arbus and her book Magazine Work by Elsa Dorfman ... 
Originally published in The Women's Review of Books
Review of the Diane Arbus book Untitled by Elsa Dorfman ... 
Originally published in The Women's Review of Books, January 1996 

Printed biographies

The following books are useful starting points to obtain brief biographies but they are not substitutes for the monographs on individual photographers.

• Auer, Michele & Michel 1985 Encyclopedie Internationale Des Photographes de 1839 a Nos Jours / Photographers Encylopaedia International 1839 to the present (Hermance, Editions Camera Obscura) 2 volumes [A classic reference work for biographical information on photographers.] 
• Beaton, Cecil & Buckland, Gail 1975 The Magic Eye: The Genius of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown & Company) p.244 [Useful short biographies with personal asides and one or more example images.] 
• Capa, Cornell (ed.) 1984 The International Center of Photography: Encyclopedia of Photography (New York, Crown Publishers, Inc. - A Pound Press Book) p.34-35 
• International Center of Photography 1999 Reflections in a Glass Eye: Works from the International Center of Photography Collection (New York: A Bulfinch Press Book) p.207 [Includes a well written short biography on Diane Arbus with example plate(s) earlier in book.] 
• Lenman, Robin (ed.) 2005 The Oxford Companion to the Photograph (Oxford: Oxford University Press)  [Includes a short biography on Diane Arbus.] 
• Weaver, Mike (ed.) 1989 The Art of Photography 1839-1989 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press) p.450 [This exhibition catalogue is for the travelling exhibition that went to Houston, Canberra and London in 1989.] 
• Witkin, Lee D. and Barbara London 1979 The Photograph Collector’s Guide (London: Secker and Warburg) p.71-72 [Long out of print but an essential reference work - the good news is that a new edition is in preparation.] 

Useful printed stuff

If there is an analysis of a single photograph or a useful self portrait I will highlight it here.

• Gruber, Renate and L. Fritz Gruber 1982 The Imaginary Photo Museum (New York: Harmony Books) p.239 
• Lahs-Gonzales, Olivia & Lippard, Lucy 1997 Defining Eye: Women Photographers of the 20th Century. Selections from the Helen Kornblum Collection (Saint Louis Art Museum, D.A.P.) [Diane Arbus is included in this overview of women photographers.] 
• Naef, Weston 1995 The J. Paul Getty Museum - Handbook of the Photographic Collection (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum) p.214 
• Naef, Weston 2004 Photographers of Genius at the Getty (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum) [For this photographer there is a description and three sample photographs from the Getty collection. p.164-167] 
• Newhall, Beaumont 1982 The History of Photography - Fifth Edition (London: Secker & Warburg) [One or more photographs by Diane Arbus are included in this classic history.] 
• Sobieszek, Robert A. and Deborah Irmas 1994 the camera i: Photographic Self-Portraits (Los Angeles: LACMA - Los Angeles County Museum of Art) p.205, Plate 84 [When the Audrey and Sydney Irmas collection was donated to LACMA - Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1992 the museum gained a remarkable collection of self portraits of notable photographers. If you need a portrait of Diane Arbus this is a useful starting point.] 
• Szarkowski, John 1973 Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art (New York: The Museum of Modern Art) p.206 [Analyzes a single photograph by Diane Arbus.] 


Photographic collections are a useful means of examining large numbers of photographs by a single photographer on-line. 

In the 1990 survey of 535 American photographic collections Diane Arbus was represented in 61 of the collections. Source: Andrew H. Eskind & Greg Drake (eds.) 1990 Index to American Photographic Collections [Second Enlarged Edition] (Boston, Massachusetts: G.K. Hall & Co.) 
Library of Congress, Washington, USA 
Approximate number of records: ? 
Note: A single record may contain more than one photograph.
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The wit and wisdom.

"A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know."
"I always thought of photography as a naughty thing to do —- that was one of my favorite things about it, and when I first did it, I felt very perverse."
"I never have taken a picture I‘ve intended. They‘re always better or worse."
"I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn‘t photograph them."
"Taking pictures is like tiptoeing into the kitchen late at night and stealing Oreo cookies."
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