Fine Art Photography
Diane Arbus (1923-71)
Diane Arbus's Photography
For more about the inventions upon which Diane Arbus's lens-based art is founded, see: History of Photography (c.1800-1900).
One of the greatest photographers of her generation, Diane Arbus revolutionized fine art photography during her mature period (1959-71). She became internationally known for her harrowing black-and-white pseudo-documentary photography, featuring freaks, eccentrics and marginal people, including dwarfs, giants, transvestites and other ugly or surreal individuals. Although highly praised by some, her portrait art also attracted considerable criticism from a number of art critics, notably Susan Sontag (1933-2004). In 1971, at the age of 48, Arbus took her own life, thus inadvertently adding herself (in the minds of her critics) to the category of damaged people that appeared in her photos. Even so, a growing consensus now sees her as a cult figure of her generation and ranks her among the best portrait artists of the 1960s. It is possible that Arbus would not have attained such a level of fame had she not died, although it is widely recognized that her austere, almost brutal style of contemporary art greatly influenced other photographers - see, for instance, the edgy work of Nan Goldin (b.1953) and Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-89). At any rate, Arbus radically altered our perception of what was permitted in photography, dramatically extending the spectrum of acceptable subjects. She also deliberately explored the visual ambiguity of marginal groups as well as of people well integrated in society. Although something of an icon for contemporary women artists, Arbus's work was never associated with feminist art or feminism. A year after her death, ten of her photos of marginalized individuals were shown at the Venice Biennale (she was the first American photographer to have photographs displayed at the event). They were the "overwhelming sensation of the American Pavilion." Subsequent exhibitions of her work (19721979) were viewed by millions, firmly establishing her reputation as a major contributor to the aesthetics of the new 'no-holds-barred' postmodernist art, which most of us now take for granted. Compare the edgy 1970s work of Helmut Newton (1920-2004).
Teenage Couple on Hudson Street, New York. Photographed by Diane Arbus.
Encouraged by her husband, Arbus took up photography. The couple also got to know the ageing Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) at whose gallery they learned about other camera artists such as the Civil War photographers Mathew Brady (1823-96) and Timothy O'Sullivan (1840-82); pictorialists like Paul Strand (1890-1976) and Bill Brandt (1904-1983); and the great Parisian chronicler Eugene Atget (1857-1927). Later, during the war, David Nemerov, Diane's father hired her to take promotional photographs for the family department store.
After the war, in 1946, the Arbuses - armed with an initial contract to promote Diane's grandfather's fur company - established a commercial photography business specializing in fashion photography for glossy magazines such as Glamour, Seventeen, Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, and other publications. They also did contract work for advertising agencies like Young & Rubicam, and for Greyhound and Maxwell House Coffee. In 1955, the famous artist Edward Steichen (1879-1973) included a photograph by the Arbuses in his highly regarded photographic exhibition.
In 1956, Diane Arbus quit commercial fashion photography and, building on earlier sessions with the New York urban photographer Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), began studying portrait photography with Lisette Model (1901-83), who specialized in close-up, unsentimental portraits reflecting the sitters' vanity, insecurity and loneliness. Arbus also spent time training with Alexey Brodovitch (1898-1971), teacher and art director of Harper's Bazaar. In 1959, greatly influenced by Model, Arbus began doing freelance photography for Esquire, Harper's Bazaar, and the Sunday Times Magazine, quickly developing an affinity for those on the margins of society. In 1959 she separated from her husband, whom she divorced in 1969.
In 1962, she made a key change in her photographic equipment, switching from a 35 mm Nikon camera (which typically produced grainy rectangular images) to a twin-lens reflex Rolleiflex camera (which gave her more detailed square images). In 1964, she added a twin-lens reflex Mamiya camera with flash, to her armoury. At the same time she adds to her finances by winning a Guggenheim Fellowship to produce a photo-study of "American rites, manners, and customs", an award renewed in 1966. In addition, during the 60s, she spent time teaching photography at the the Cooper Union and the Parsons School of Design in New York - where one of her pupils was the feminist graphic artist Barbara Kruger (b.1945) - and the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island. All this provided her with the opportunity and means to develop her mature style of penetrating portrait photography, taking as her main theme the deviant, odd, damaged and/or marginalized individuals throughout society. Working mainly as a freelance, but also on assignment for newspapers and magazines, she established strong personal relationships with her subjects, some of whom she re-photographed over many years. In addition to photographing odd people, Arbus also did several portraits of modern artists like Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), James Rosenquist (b.1933), Frank Stella (b.1936) and Lucas Samaras (b.1936), as well as writers like Jorge Luis Borges.
During the 60s, Arbus associated with several other modern artists in her field - collectively known as the New York School of photographers - such as Robert Frank (b.1924), Saul Leiter (1923-2013) and Marvin Israel (1924-84). She was also a friend of fellow New-Yorker Richard Avedon (1923-2004) whose family had also run a Fifth Avenue department store. In 1967, she participated in her first major exhibition - a group photography show called "New Documents" - curated by John Szarkowski at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
On July 26, 1971, under the influence of growing depression (her mother was also a sufferer), Arbus took her own life in New York by taking a large quantity of barbiturates and slashing her wrists with a razor.
Photographs by Diane Arbus have been exhibited in many of the world's best art museums and galleries.
1967 New York (group show at Museum of
The main exhibitions of Diane Arbus's work - several of which have travelled to the best galleries of contemporary art in America - include the following:
(1) "Diane Arbus: 19721975" Museum of Modern Art, New York; which travelled to the Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; the Detroit Institute of Arts; the New Orleans Museum of Art; the Witte Memorial Museum, San Antonio, Texas; the Florida Center for the Arts, University of South Florida, Tampa; and several other venues. This exhibition attracted an estimated 7 million visitors.
(2) "Diane Arbus: Retrospective 197379". This travelled to Seibu Museum, Tokyo; the Hayward Gallery, London; the Van Abbe Museum, Eindhoven; the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam; the Lenbachhaus Stadtische Galerie, Munich; Von der Heydt Museum, Wuppertal, Germany; Frankfurter Kunstverein; 13 galleries in Australia and 7 galleries and museums in New Zealand.
(3) "Diane Arbus: Magazine Work 19601971". This show travelled (1984-7) to the Spencer Museum of Art, Lawrence, Kansas; the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis; the University of Kentucky Art Museum, Lexington; the Neuberger Museum, State University of New York at Purchase; the Wellesley College Museum, Massachusetts; and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
(4) "Diane Arbus: Revelations 2003-2006. Organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
1962. Child with Toy Hand Grenade
in Central Park, New York.
For other important lens-based artists involved in street photography or social issues, please see the following forthcoming articles.
For other celebrated camera artists noted for their portraits, please see the following articles.
Margaret Cameron (1815-79)
For more about portrait and social issues photography, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF PHOTOGRAPHIC ART