Arbus, Diane (1923–1971)
Arbus, Diane (1923–1971)
American photographer whose work had a profound influence on American documentary photography. Name variations: Diane Nemerov. Surname sometimes pronounced DEE-yan. Born Diane Nemerov on March 14, 1923, in New York, New York; committed suicide on July 26, 1971, in New York City; second child and first daughter of David (a retailer) and Gertrude (Russek) Nemerov ; sister of essayist, novelist, and critic Howard Nemerov (1920–1991); sister of Renée Sparkia , a sculptor whose work is in collections at Palm Beach Institute and Lord Beaverbrook's museum in New Brunswick; married Allan Arbus (a photographer), on March 10, 1941 (divorced 1969); children: Doon Arbus (b. 1945, a writer) and Amy Arbus (b. April 16, 1954, a photographer).
Established fashion photography studio with husband Allan Arbus (1947); dissolved partnership with Allan (1957); studied photography with Lisette Model (1958–59); received first Guggenheim fellowship (1963); second Guggenheim (1966); work included in "New Documents" exhibition at Museum of Modern Art, New York (1967); given the Robert Levitt Award from the American Society of Magazine Photographers for outstanding achievement (1970); work exhibited at Venice Biennale (1972); retrospective, Museum of Modern Art (1972).
Diane Arbus was born on March 14, 1923, in New York, New York. "Even as a baby she didn't just look at you—she considered you," said her mother. Diane's self-estimate at 16 would be less generous; she maintained that she was "cranky—always crying, yelling, screaming. I can always remember the feeling I had. I always felt warm and tired and there was warm sun on me and I didn't want to wake up."
From about 1930 on, Arbus and her brother, the poet Howard Nemerov, grew up in a Manhattan apartment on the 11th floor of New York's San Remo, 146 Central Park West. Her maternal grandfather, Frank Russek, was a penniless Polish Jew who immigrated to New York and in 1897 established a fur business with his brother in New York City. By 1915, the phenomenal success of Russek's Furs had made the brothers millionaires. Diane's father was David Nemerov, son of a poor Jewish immigrant from Russia, who began working for Russek's Furs as a window dresser but was soon named merchandising director. Although the difference in their social backgrounds caused much disapproval among the Russek family, David married Frank Russek's daughter Gertrude, despite the Russeks' objections.
In 1923, David expanded Russek's Furs into Russek's Fifth Avenue, a department store on 36th Street. "The outside of the seven-story building was imposing," writes Patricia Bosworth ; "with its balconies and marble columns, it resembled a Venetian palazzo." Inside, "purple velvet carpets covered the floor, and salesmen and salesladies behaved obsequiously." Arbus found her family's affluence "humiliating." At home, there was an army of household help: two maids, a chauffeur, a cook, a nanny for each child. Diane adored Mamselle, her French nanny. As opposed to visits with her mother to Russek's where the clerks fawned ("I was treated like a crummy princess," groused Arbus), Mamselle took her to see some Hooverville shanties—makeshift squatters' homes that were by-products of the Depression—in Central Park. It was a powerful memory for Arbus, "Seeing the other side of the tracks, holding the hand of one's governess."
Her father, who worked 14-hour days at the store while finding time for numerous affairs, was aloof and showed little interest in his children, though, said Arbus, he was "fantastic at giving advice." (His name would later crop up in the red-leather telephone book of Madame Pat Ward , who ran a call-girl ring for executives; the book made the front pages of the Daily News in 1955). Arbus' chain-smoking, card-playing mother Gertrude was far more attentive, but prone to depression.
Diane and her brother Howard were voracious readers; they also shared rich fantasies and
were both private, prone to fears, and agonizingly shy. Until Howard left for school in 1926, they were inseparable. "Howard doted on Diane," said a cousin. "He kept a photograph of her in his wallet until she died. He was certainly in awe—because even when she was tiny, she never behaved like a little girl. She had innate sophistication—wisdom about things—and she was gorgeously intuitive. Howard turned into a highly critical, precise intellectual. It was some combination." When their younger sister Renée was born, Diane lavished all the affection she wasn't getting on her baby sister.
Though the children attended Temple Emanu-El on the High Holy Days, Arbus did not have a sense of the potential consequences of her Judaism while growing up. "I didn't know it was an unfortunate thing to be! Because I grew up in a Jewish city in a Jewish family and my father was a rich Jew and I went to a Jewish school, I was confirmed in a sense of unreality. All I could feel was my sense of unreality." In later years, she would march into Yorkville to photograph and scrutinize delegates of the American Nazi Party.
At age seven, she was sent to the Ethical Culture School, a private lyceum for New York's elite based on a system of religious humanistic philosophy, which encouraged each pupil's artistic talent. From seventh to twelfth grade, she attended Fieldston School in the Riverdale section of the Bronx (a continuation of Ethical Culture). "The teachers always used to think I was smart and it would torment me because I knew that I was really terribly dumb," she wrote. Contrary to her own opinion, it is clear that Arbus was not only extremely bright but also extremely creative. Her talent both frightened her and made her feel separate from others. "Diane would float away from a group of us—suddenly—no explanation," said a classmate. "Later we'd see her sitting by herself reading a book of poetry in Central Park. She did that a lot."
Arbus took an enormous interest in myths, rituals, quests, and legends. Her favorite book was Alice in Wonderland; her favorite artists: Käthe Kollwitz and Paul Klee. While on a class trip visiting a settlement house, she wanted to talk to the derelicts on the street. She identified with their isolation and their otherness. Feeling overly protected, Arbus regarded herself as insulated from life; she once complained to a friend that at summer camp all the children had been bitten by leeches except her.
Arbus and a schoolfriend rode the subway to observe marks and qualities that set certain people apart—birthmarks, impairments. They mingled with New York's street people: the mutterer, the corner preacher, or the lady dressed to the hilt in infested fur. Desperately curious to see how they lived, the schoolgirls sometimes followed their subjects home. Then Diane returned to her own household, where her mother was playing cards with the well-to-do matrons in a gloomy apartment fringed with thick curtains. "I got the feeling that Diane was as terrified of reentering the bourgeois world of her parents as she was of exploring the world of freaks and eccentrics," said her friend Phyllis Carton . "Both worlds fascinated her because they seemed one and the same to her."
A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.
When Diane was 15, her mother's melancholia increased; Gertrude would sit in silence at the dinner table. "I simply could not communicate with my family," said Gertrude. "I didn't know why. I felt my husband and children didn't love me and I couldn't love them. I stopped functioning. I was like a zombie. My friend May Miller had to take me shopping and help me try on clothes. I wasn't able to take them off the hangers I felt so weak." After a year, however, Gertrude slowly came out of it. Arbus' brother Howard also experienced deep depressions throughout his life.
In 1937, at age 14, Diane met and fell in love with Allan Arbus, a 19-year-old aspiring actor and musician who worked in the art department at Russek's Fifth Avenue. Diane's announcement that she and Allan wanted to marry met with shock from her parents, and they refused permission. Allan came from a poor family, and the Nemerovs would not allow their daughter to "marry beneath her," despite the history of their own contested marriage. The two, however, managed to date regularly, and her parents' opposition only served to increase Diane's determination.
In 1940, she graduated from Fieldston with no future plans other than to marry Allan Arbus. Her parents relented, and in April 1941, soon after Arbus' 18th birthday, Diane and Allan were married at a small wedding ceremony. When her parents refused to assist the newlyweds financially, Allan worked two jobs to support his wife, who dedicated herself to becoming a homemaker. She continued to read—Willa Cather , Carl Jung, Emily Dickinson —and attend plays and concerts. When she went to museums, she tended to ignore the art while scrutinizing the spectators.
In 1943, during World War II, the couple moved to New Jersey, where Allan attended a photography school as part of his service in the Signal Corps. Nightly, he shared his knowledge with his wife; they set up a darkroom, and Diane became fascinated with the possibilities offered by photography for both documentation and creative expression. She began to fill her days by taking pictures, a hobby that turned more serious after Allan was shipped off to Burma with a photographers' unit in 1944. Their first child, Doon, was born on April 3, 1945, while Diane was staying with her parents in New York. Arbus divided her time between her daughter and her cameras until Allan returned in 1946. To make ends meet, Allan gave up his dream of being an actor and, with Diane as his partner, he entered the world of fashion photography. (Arbus would never receive financial help from her father throughout the marriage; they were continually burdened with bills.)
Tina Fredericks , art director at Condé Nast and a close friend of Diane's, gave them a job in January 1947 at Glamour. Their first assignment, "The New Sweater is a Long Story," was published in May 1947. The couple eventually achieved success, though they still struggled financially. Throughout the 1950s, they did editorial work for Vogue; had accounts from the advertising agencies Young & Rubicam and J. Walter Thompson; shot layouts for vodka, Greyhound Bus, Maxwell House coffee; and worked on the ad campaign known as "Modess Because." The more successful they grew, the more they hated the world of commercial photography, regarding it as shallow and deceitful. The field drew a calculating, hustling, hard-drinking crowd.
Creative perfectionists, the Arbuses—who usually alternated shooting assignments although they both attended each of them—gained a reputation for precision and painstaking detail in the world of fashion photography. In addition to collaborating with her husband on the actual shoot, Arbus was usually the stylist for their assignments; she coordinated the models' wardrobes, hairstyles, makeup, and poses. Observers tell of how closely the Arbuses worked, holding hands, secretive. Many used the phrase "they were like twins."
Allan also encouraged Diane to shoot on her own, to perfect her style. She needed little urging and appeared everywhere with a camera slung around her neck. She wanted to photograph the underbelly of people's lives, the side hidden from the public (she had a fascination for medicine cabinets), but she was too shy to ask strangers to pose, so she continued to ask friends. With a particular interest in photographing children, she enjoyed shooting her older daughter Doon and her younger child Amy, born in 1954. Indeed, throughout her career, children would remain her most common subjects.
As the antithesis of women in the fashion industry, Arbus preferred paper bags to purses and eschewed deodorant, preferring the body's natural smell. At times, she was a lethargic daydreamer who spoke in a husky whisper and faded into the shadows. Like her mother, she felt inadequate and suffered dark moods and depressions that she tried to hide from her own daughters. As her sister Renée pointed out, the camera was like a shield. Diane sometimes wore it around her neck at Friday night family dinners, then she'd point and click. "I think," said Renée, "she imagined that if she was invisible, everybody would forget she was there."
Despite a frenetic work schedule, Allan found her depressions progressively harder to deal with. Episodes had no obvious onset; Diane would grow listless, remote, and dazed, barely responding to life. Once, when asked at a dinner party what her workday was like, she involuntarily broke into rare tears. In 1957, Diane and Allan broke up their business partnership. He would continue to run the studio under their joint name, while pursuing his acting career; Diane would no longer work in fashion photography but was free to go in whatever direction she wished.
She enrolled in Alexey Brodovitch's workshop, walking away with his axiom, "If you see something you've seen before, don't click the shutter." As she studied the history of photography briefly with Berenice Abbott , she became familiar with the works of Julia Cameron , Mathew Brady, and Lewis Hine. Arbus was most impressed with Lisette Model , whose images included portraits of the frail and sickly, subjects rarely seen in photo exhibitions at the time.
In 1958, the 35-year-old Arbus enrolled in Lisette Model's class at the New School. The two formed a close bond. Arbus told Newsweek:
Until I studied with Lisette I'd gone on dreaming photography rather than doing it. Lisette told me to enjoy myself when I was photographing and I began to, and then I learned from the work. Lisette taught me that I'd felt guilty about being a woman. Guilty because I didn't think I could ever understand the mechanics of the camera. I'd always believed that since painters rendered every line on a canvas, they experience the image more completely than a photographer. That had bothered me. Lisette talked to me about how ancient the camera was and how the light stains the silver coating of the film silver so memory stains it too.
Indeed, Model convinced Arbus that she could experience the object of her work as much as any painter.
American male impersonator. Name variations: De Larverie.
In 1955, Stormé Delarverié joined the Jewel Box Review in which she worked as a male impersonator with 25 female impersonators. The review toured theaters from Mexico to Canada, and during the 1950s and '60s performed across the segregated south. When asked whether she wanted to be referred to as a "he" or a "she," Delarverié responded, "I tell people, 'Use whatever makes you comfortable.'" Repeatedly beaten and a victim during the Stonewall rebellion of 1969, Delarverié went on to tell transgender historian Leslie Feinberg, "It really doesn't matter whether you're male, female, gay, straight—whatever you want your identity to be—no one has the right to try to take your life or to beat you down for it."
Feinberg, Leslie. Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to RuPaul. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.
Arbus gradually ceased taking pictures of ordinary people. She began to seek out circuses and other venues where she found individuals living on the margins of society—transvestites, dwarves, midgets, contortionists, people deformed from birth or by accident. She saw Tod Browning's 1932 movie Freaks and began photographing Stormé Delarverié , a male impersonator. She began to prowl the city at night, blending into the scenery as she entered the world of Times Square bag ladies, subway bums, and prostitutes. She became fascinated with Moondog, the blind beggar who carried a staff, wore a Viking helmet, and favored traffic islands for his eight-hour catatonic shifts. She followed circuses to small towns and haunted sideshows, enjoying the company of Presto the Fireeater and the tattooed man. She sat by the hour with the manager of a flea circus while he fed his fleas, serving up his arm for dinner as he read the Daily News. Throughout, the diffident Arbus was generally frightened. Then again, she was always frightened, she maintained, "crawling forward on her belly," no matter what she was doing. Finally, however, she mustered up the courage to ask strangers to pose.
Arbus approached her subjects cautiously, not using her camera until she had established a trusting relationship with them. Her portraits of this period reveal her ability to capture something beyond the posed, masked smile. Using an intrusive photographic technique, she moved in close and used a bright flash, which startled the subject, often resulting in a less guarded expression in the final image. By all accounts, Arbus was a magnificent listener who concentrated intensely on each individual with whom she conversed. Many people were drawn to her, and many became possessive of her. She was seductive, bisexual. With sex, as with photography, she was constantly experimenting. "Sex was the quickest, most primitive way [for her] to begin connecting with another human being," wrote Bosworth.
The more she learned, the more critical she became of her husband's fashion shoots, though only when asked. As their marriage disintegrated, Allan shut himself up in his room for hours, practicing the clarinet. She began printing her pictures in a borrowed darkroom; he began studying acting under Mira Rostova , working on scenes with a young actress. The family became poorer as Diane took photo after photo without knowing how to sell them. There were no magazine outlets for dark, idiosyncratic glossies.
In late 1959, Arbus found a mentor in modernist painter Marvin Israel. Believing that she had a special talent, he used his connections to promote her. His efforts led to an assignment for Esquire when the magazine was devoting an entire issue to Manhattan. Arbus spent four months traversing the city; she shot hundreds of rolls of film: of the morgue at Bellevue, of bodies in potter's field, of dancers at Roseland, and of Flora Knapp Dickinson of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). The success of her images led to other assignments on a regular basis from the editors of Esquire.
Though they remained friends, the Arbuses officially separated in the summer of 1960. She anguished over the loss of the ideal more than the marriage and felt the strain of single motherhood. She always put her children's schedule before her own.
Arbus sold a layout of five eccentrics for the November 1961 issue of Harper's Bazaar. Still interested in people with unusual physicalities, she was also intrigued by individuals, often mentally ill, whose cognitions made them unusual, such as a man from Oklahoma who believed he was the rightful emperor of Byzantium and demanded to be treated as royalty. She wanted to dramatize their lives. Wrote Arbus in the introductory essay:
These are five singular people, who appear further out than we do; beckoned, not driven; invented by belief; each the author and hero of a real dream by which our own courage and cunning are tested and tried; so that we may wonder all over again what is veritable and inevitable and possible and what it is to become whoever we may be.
She adored and respected the talent of her friend Richard Avedon but wondered how he could shoot a portrait in ten minutes and not remember any of his conversation with the subject during the sitting. She had trouble with his "unearned intimacy." Arbus remembered everything that was said by her subjects and shot them over and over for years, like Morales, the Mexican dwarf, and Eddie Carmel, the Jewish giant. She took off her clothes to shoot in a nudist colony and marched in peace marches to shoot the marchers. She revealed herself to her subjects, so that they might reveal themselves to her. What she wanted most was to follow her subjects home, to go into their houses, to shoot them in their bedrooms.
She was finally making a little money, but ashamed that she was making it from her photographs. Arbus was shooting celebrities on assignment like Mae West, Jayne Mansfield, Blaze Starr , F. Lee Bailey, Jacqueline Susann, Nathalie Sarraute , Jorge Luis Borges, Tokyo Rose (Iva Toguri ), feminists Ti Grace Atkinson and Germaine Greer , even Ozzie and Harriet Nelson . She also photographed Tricia Nixon 's White House wedding for the London Sunday Times.
On March 6, 1967, "New Documents" opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The show featured her work along with that of photographers Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander. The purpose of the exhibition was to present a new era in documentary photography, an era that contradicted the previous romanticism and provided a more individualized, less generous view of humanity. It contained at least 30 of her photographs. Arbus' technique of photographing in square format with flash would soon be duplicated by hundreds of budding photographers. Wrote Marion Magid in Arts magazine: "In the end the great humanity of Diane Arbus' art is to sanctify that privacy which she seemed at first to have violated." Arbus was extremely proud of the show and of the recognition she received as a result of its exposure to the public, though she was secretly depressed by the negative comments she heard from viewers. As with her first exhibition, public reaction was either approving or censorious, but her work always seemed to move its viewers in some way. Remarked one critic: "One does not look with impunity" at a Diane Arbus photograph.
Friends, who included sculptor Mary Frank, Anita Steckel , playwright Rosalyn Drexler , filmmakers Shirley Clarke and Maya Deren told Arbus she would have to grow a thicker skin. She was terrified that her pictures would be misunderstood, and they often were. She was terrified that she'd be known as the photographer of freaks, and she often was. As the public and the art world invaded her world and work, her most enduring terror was that things would now be expected of her.
After battling a bout of hepatitis in 1966, her depressions had grown worse. "She fell into a ghastly, unending depression that went on for three years—until her death," said her mother. "Periodically she would call me on the phone in Florida and cry 'Mummy—Mummy—tell me the story of your depression and how you got over it.'" In 1968, Arbus began to suffer from nausea, low energy, dizziness, back pains, and weight loss. Finally diagnosed with "toxic hepatitis ostensibly secondary to the combination of drugs used for depression and birth control," she went off all pills.
In 1969, she and Allan were finally divorced. He married actress Mariclare Costello , and they moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting careers. His departure frightened Diane, who had always relied on Allan, even after their separation. Believing that their union would last forever, she had felt that even if they each had other lovers (and Diane had many), they could remain a married couple. Still struggling financially, she moved into the subsidized Manhattan artist community of Westbeth in January of 1970, living near Muriel Ruckeyser , Merce Cunningham, Tobias Schneebaum, Thalia Seltz , and her good friend Mary Frank. She also taught a course out of her apartment.
Summers had been difficult during Arbus' childhood. Her favorite governess Mamselle left abruptly one summer, and her parents went to Europe. In the summer of 1971, when Arbus was 48 years old, friends noticed that she began tying things up. Frequently in tears, she was convinced her work would never sell. She had dinner with her brother and, though cheerful, announced, "You know, I'm going to be remembered for being Howard Nemerov's sister." She could no longer lose herself in her work.
Diane Arbus was last seen alive on July 26th, walking toward Westbeth. She bumped into an acquaintance and confided that she was catching a cold and thinking of moving out of New York. On July 28th, when her friend Marvin Israel could not reach her by phone, he went to Westbeth and found her in the empty bathtub with her wrists slit. On her desk, her journal was opened to July 26th. It read, "The last supper."
Bosworth, Patricia. Diane Arbus: A Biography. NY: W.W. Norton, 1984.
Arbus, Diane. Untitled. Edited by Doon Arbus and Yolanda Cumo. NY: Aperture, 1995.
Arbus, Doon, and Marvin Israel, eds. Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph. Millerton, NY: Aperture, 1972.
——. Diane Arbus: Magazine Work. Millerton, NY: Aperture, 1984.
Heather Moore , freelance writer in women's studies, Northampton, Massachusetts