Diane Nemerov Arbus

views updated Jun 11 2018

Diane Nemerov Arbus

The American photographer Diane Nemerov Arbus (1923-1971) specialized in photographs of nontraditional subjects, including gays, the physically challenged, circus performers, and nudists.

Diane Arbus was born Diane Nemerov on March 14, 1923. The daughter of a wealthy New York businessman (the family owned Russeks department store on Fifth Avenue), Arbus led a pampered childhood. Being a member of a prominent New York family, she grew up with a strong sense of what was "acceptable" and what was "prohibited" in polite society. Her world was a protected one in which she never felt adversity, yet it seemed to her to be an unreal world. Ludicrous as it may seem, the sense of being "immune" from hardship was painful for her. An extremely shy child, Arbus was often fearful but told no one of her fantasies. Her closest relationship was with her older brother, Howard.

From the seventh through the twelfth grade Arbus attended Fieldstone School in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, a part of the Ethical Culture educational system. Here she became interested in myths, ritual, and public spectacle, ideas which would later inform her photography. At Fieldstone she also devoted much time and energy to art class—painting, sketching, and working in clay. During this period of her life Arbus and several of her friends began exploring New York on their own, getting off the subway in unfamiliar areas of Brooklyn or the Bronx, observing and following interesting or unusual passersby.

At the age of 14 Diane met Allan Arbus, a 19-year-old City College student who was employed in the art department at Russeks. It was love at first sight. Her parents disapproved, but this only served to heighten Diane's resolve to marry him as soon as she came of age. In many ways, Allan represented an escape from all that was restricting and oppressive in her family life. They were married in a rabbi's chambers on April 10, 1941, with only their immediate families present.

Early Career as Fashion Photographer

To ease financial pressures, Allan supplemented his job at Russeks by working as a salesman and also by doing some fashion photography. Arbus became his assistant. During World War II when Allan was sent to a photography school near Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, Arbus moved to nearby Red Bank and set up a darkroom in their bathroom. Allan taught her everything he was learning at the school. In May of 1944 Allan was transferred to another photography school, this time in Astoria, Queens. Then, late in 1944, he was sent to Burma. By this time Diane was pregnant with their first child, Doon, who was born April 3, 1945.

During the 1940s Arbus studied briefly under photographer Berenice Abbott. After Allan's discharge from the army, husband and wife teamed up as fashion photographers, working for Russeks and Bonwit Teller. Their first magazine assignment appeared in the May 1947 issue of Glamour and marked the beginning of a long association with Condé Nast publishing firm. Their trademark was to shoot models in action. Yet the Arbuses despised the shallowness of the fashion industry. Her real joy during this period was photographing friends and relatives; often she wore her camera around her neck at family meals.

On April 16, 1954, Arbus gave birth to her second daughter, Army. In addition to her fashion work with Allan, she photographed children—strangers in Spanish Harlem, the offspring of close friends, and, of course, Doon and Amy. Throughout the 1950s she also found herself increasingly attracted to nontraditional subjects, people on the fringes of normal society. This provided a release from the oppression she felt in the fashion world. During these years she also suffered from recurring bouts of depression.

In 1957 the couple decided to make a change. He continued to run their fashion studio, freeing her to photograph subjects of her own choice. She briefly attended Alexey Brodovitch's workshop at the New School and, on her own, made a detailed study of the history of photography. But Arbus found herself most drawn to the photographs of her contemporaries Louis Faurer and Robert Frank and, especially, to the unusual images of Lisette Model. In 1958 Arbus enrolled in a class Model was offering at the New School.

It was during this period of work with Model that Arbus decided what she really wanted to photograph was "the forbidden." She saw her camera as a sort of license that allowed her to be curious and to explore the lives of others. Gradually overcoming her shyness, she enjoyed going where she never had, entering the lives and homes of others and confronting that which had been off-limits in her own protected childhood.

Career with a "Candid Camera"

Model taught her to be specific, that close scrutiny of reality produces something fantastic. An early project Arbus undertook involved photographing what she referred to as "freaks." She responded to them with a mixture of shame and awe. She always identified with her subjects in a personal way. Model once referred to Arbus' "specific subject matter" as "freaks, homosexuals, lesbians, cripples, sick people, dying people, dead people." Instead of looking away from such people, as does most of the public, Arbus looked directly at these individuals, treating them seriously and humanely. As a result, her work was always original and unique.

When Arbus and her husband separated in 1960, her work became increasingly independent. During that period she began her series of circus images, photographing midget clowns, tattooed men, and sideshow subjects. She frequented Hubert's Freak Museum at Broadway and 42nd Street, fascinated by what she saw. She returned again and again until her subjects knew and trusted her. She also frequented the Times Square area, getting to know the bag ladies and derelicts.

Arbus posed her subjects looking directly into the camera, just as she looked directly at them. She said, "I don't like to arrange things; I arrange myself." For her, the subject was always more important than the picture. She firmly believed that there were things which nobody would see unless she photographed them. Arbus created photo essays of these subjects which she sold to magazines such as Esquire, Harper's Bazaar, and Infinity.

In the early 1960s Arbus began to photograph another group, nudists. She frequented nudist camps in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, agreeing to go naked herself in order to gain her subjects' trust. This period, 1962 to 1964, was a particularly productive one for her. Among Arbus' many accomplishments during this time was winning her first Guggenheim fellowship, which allowed her to photograph "American rites and customs, contests, festivals. … "

Three of Arbus' pictures were included in John Szarkowski's 1965 show at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), "Recent Acquisitions"—one of two female impersonators back stage and two from her series on nudists. Viewers were shocked and often repelled by these frank images. A few years later her work was included, along with that of Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander, in Szarkowski's "New Documents" exhibition at the MOMA. The show, which opened March 6, 1967, marked the pinnacle of Arbus' career and included some 30 examples of her work. One critic called her "the wizard of odds." Another asserted that she catered "to the peeping Tom in all of us."

From 1966 on Arbus struggled with bouts of hepatitis which often left her weak and depressed. Then, in 1969, Allan Arbus formally divorced her, marrying Mariclare Costello; soon after, they moved to California. During this difficult period Arbus photographed many of the leading figures of the 1960s: F. Lee Bailey, Jacqueline Susann, Coretta Scott King. She also did some lecturing at Cooper Union, Parsons, and Rhode Island School of Design in addition to giving a master class at Westbeth, the artists' community in which she lived.

Arbus committed suicide in her New York apartment on July 26, 1971. Perhaps the words of her longtime friend, photographer Richard Avedon, provide the most fitting epithet: "Nothing about her life, her photographs, or her death was accidental or ordinary." Her unique vision, her personal style, and the range of her subject matter provided a seminal influence in 20th-century photography.

Further Reading

The standard work on Arbus' photography is the Aperture monograph Diane Arbus (1972). Patricia Bosworth's Diane Arbus, a Biography (1984) provides a good overview of the photographer's life. In addition, Magazine Work (1984), edited by Doon Arbus and Marvin Israel, includes both Arbus' own words and essays by those closest to her. Arbus is also included in Anne Tucker's The Woman's Eye (1973) and is the subject of numerous magazine and newspaper critiques. □

Arbus, Diane

views updated May 23 2018

ARBUS, Diane

(b. 14 March 1923 in New York City; d. 26 July 1971 in New York City), photographer known for her spare and often startling portraiture who came into her own as an artist during the 1960s.

Born Diane Nemerov, Arbus was the daughter of David Irwin Nemerov and Gertrude "Buddy" Russek. She was raised in privilege in New York City, where her family owned and operated a well-known furrier and department-store chain. Her siblings included an older brother, Howard, who became a lauded poet, and a younger sister, Reneé, who become a noted sculptor.

Both parents were distant to their children, and a nanny tended both Arbus and her siblings during their childhood. Arbus was shy, and closest to her brother. She was educated at the Ethical Culture and Fieldston schools, where she developed an interest in art, first sketching, then studying oil painting and collage. She was also a voracious reader, as she would be her entire life. Her favorite books included Alice in Wonderland, gothic novels such as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, as well as mythological tales.

She met Allan Franklin Arbus while they both worked at her family's store, and they reportedly instantly fell in love. Despite her parents' interventions and objections, they married on 10 April 1941, shortly after Arbus reached her eighteenth birthday. They eventually had two daughters, Doon and Amy. With the advent of World War II, Allan Arbus enlisted in the Signal Corps and was assigned to photography school. He shared what he was learning with his wife, before being shipped to Burma in 1944.

After Allan returned to the United States in the late 1940s, the couple decided to start a fashion photography studio. Although they shared duties, Diane was stylist for the sessions. The studio eventually expanded into advertising photography, with clients such as Maxwell House Coffee and General Electric.

Although successful, Arbus wished to further explore photography as art. She was given her independence to pursue art photography in about 1957, since Allan wanted to study acting. The Arbus's studio continued operations, and they agreed to remain partners. Her most influential teacher was Lisette Model, a photographer who challenged and encouraged her to explore so-called "freaks" as subjects for her portraits. Among her other mentors were Marvin Israel, Richard Avedon, and Walker Evans.

During the 1960s, the world of art experienced a movement away from fixed tradition. Certainly none of Arbus's subject matter could be considered conventional. She plunged headlong into exploring the seamy side of life, and acknowledged her direct photographs of street people, dwarves, and transvestites as trophies or documents of her adventures. Arbus is often quoted as having said, "A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know." From 1962 through 1967, she photographed nudes at naturist camps throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania in hopes of publishing a book, but it was never released. Late in her career, she photographed residents in a home for the developmentally disabled. This book was released after her death.

The years between 1962 and 1964 are acknowledged to have been Arbus's most productive. She was awarded Guggenheim fellowships in 1963 and 1966 and continued to receive assignments from magazines such as Esquire, New York, Nova, and the Sunday Times (London) Magazine. It was on these assignments that Arbus photographed leaders of the decade, including F. Lee Bailey, Coretta Scott King, and Abbie Hoffman. With these more conventional subjects, she was said to have behaved "like the first paparazzi." The writer Norman Mailer once said "giving a camera to Diane Arbus is like putting a live grenade in the hands of a child." Throughout her adult life, Arbus had problems with depression. This was exacerbated by ongoing problems with hepatitis, which began in 1966. Also during this period Arbus was asked to participate in the Museum of Modern Art "New Documents" show, for which three of her photos were selected in 1965. Concerned about the photographs initially selected, she balked at inclusion in the exhibit. Ultimately the museum agreed to display more recent work with which she was satisfied. The 1967 exhibit included thirty pieces, and was recognized as the high point in her career.

In 1969 the Diane and Allan Arbus Studios closed, and the couple, although separated for years, formally divorced. Allan remarried and moved to California, where he continued to pursue an acting career. (His most popular role was that of Dr. Sidney Freedman in the television program M*A*S*H. )

Arbus taught and lectured at schools throughout the 1960s, including Cooper Union and Rhode Island School of Design. Her final residence was an artists' community known as Westbeth, where she had moved in January 1970. She committed suicide in her own apartment.

Arbus's photographs never failed to get a reaction. One reviewer likened the conflicting sensations to those experienced when passing an accident: the curious person is both compelled to look and revulsed at the same time. Her subject matter was often viewed as perverse because the subjects in her most confrontational photographs were people on society's fringes, but Arbus seemed to relish confrontation with anything approaching conformity or societal normalcy. Because she sought to capture people at their most intimate or revealing moments, Arbus was alternately praised for investing her subjects with dignity, and reviled for exploiting them. In retrospect, she has been hailed for her ability to capture psychologically telling images.

Arbus was productive in her short career. Much of her work was not shown or released until after her death, perhaps in large part because she rarely seemed sufficiently satisfied with her work, but also because her contribution to modern photography was not sufficiently appreciated until then. Her work was shown posthumously at various museums throughout the world. One of the first such retrospectives was mounted by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the exhibit eventually toured throughout the United States. Arbus was also the first American photographer to be selected for the Venice Biennale exhibit. Works by Arbus are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, and the George Eastman House, Rochester, New York.

Biographical sources on Arbus include Patricia Bosworth, Diane Arbus: A Biography (1984). For autobiographical material see Diane Arbus, Diane Arbus (1972); and Diane Arbus, Magazine Work, Doon Arbus and Marvin Israel, eds. (1984); and Diane Arbus, Untitled, edited and designed by Doon Arbus and Yolanda Cuomo (1995). An article on Arbus is Hal Hinson, "Arbus in Wonderland," The Atlantic Monthly 254 (Nov. 1984): 129–130.

Linda Dailey Paulson

Arbus, Diane

views updated May 23 2018


ARBUS, DIANE (1923–1971), U.S. photographer. The photographer of provocative and unsettling portraits was born in New York to a wealthy Jewish family. Her father, David Nemerov, the son of Russian immigrants, took over Russek's Fur Store owned by his father-in-law and turned it into Russek's of Fifth Avenue, a fashion showplace. Diane (usually pronounced Dee-Ann) was raised with her two siblings (her brother, Howard *Nemerov, was a major poet and critic) in privileged circumstances on Central Park West and Park Avenue in Manhattan. At 13 she met Allan Arbus, who worked in the advertising department of her parents' store, and they married, with her parents' grudging approval, after she turned 18. Trained as a photographer during World War ii, Allan put aside his ambitions for an acting career to make a living in fashion photography. Diane became his partner, shaping and styling the shots. With Russek's as their first client, the Arbs, as they were called, got assignments for the fashion magazines Glamour, Seventeen, and Vogue. They worked closely as a team, and they took equal credit on their published photos. The photographic partnership broke up in 1957 when Diane, a victim of recurring depressions, opted out of the business. A year earlier, a photo of theirs was included in the massive "Family of Man" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

The professional separation was followed in 1959 by a marital separation but the Arbuses remained close friends and his laboratory assistants developed her film. Diane enrolled in a course at the New School taught by Lisette Model, a documentary photographer with a flair for the grotesque and exaggerated, and Model became her devoted mentor. Encouraged by Model and her husband, Arbus began to develop her own approach, to register through her lens the "forbidden" subject matter that had always secretly attracted her. She sought out bag ladies, tattooed men and women, nudists, carnival oddities, the deformed, and the retarded. Freaks had "a terrific kind of excitement for me," she said in an oft-repeated quotation. "Most people go through life dreading they'll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They've already passed their test in life. They're aristocrats."

By the early 1960s her commercial portraits for magazines like Esquire and Harper's Bazaar began to assume a distinctive look. Her dream was to photograph everybody in the world. Her edgy, transcendental photographs of peace marches, art openings, circuses, and portraits of the billionaire H.L. Hunt, Gloria Vanderbilt's baby, and Coretta Scott King were memorable. She would spend hours with her subjects, following them to home or office, talking and listening, trying to soften them up. In 1962 she met John Szarkowski, who had replaced Edward Steichen as the curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1967 he featured her in the groundbreaking exhibition "New Documents," with images of midgets, transvestites, and nudists, and her fame multiplied. Her depictions of suburban boredom, New Jersey twins in matching dresses and head bands, and shriveled post-celebrity have become archetypes. Photos like "Identical Twins," "A Young Man in Curlers," and, especially, her 1970 "A Jewish Giant at Home With His Parents" (8 ft. Eddie Carmel) remain signatures decades after her death.

In July 1971, after debilitating bouts of depression and hepatitis and her official divorce from Allan Arbus, art director Marvin Israel, her collaborator, critic, and lover, found her with her wrists slit, dead in the bathtub of her apartment. A year after her death the Venice Biennale exhibited ten huge blowups of her human oddities that were the sensation of the American Pavilion. Soon afterward a large retrospective opened at the Museum of Modern Art and was both damned for its voyeurism and praised for its compassion.

Her family put a tight lid on reproductions of her work and insisted on vetting all the textual material that accompanied the photographs. Consequently, very few images were reproduced over the years.

[Stewart Kampel (2nd ed.)]