Diane Arbus is a name often associated with the strange or abnormal in the photography world with her portraits of the “deviants and marginal people of society”. She led a troubled life and battled with bouts of depression; she ultimately chose to take her own life in 1971. Today we celebrate the day of her birth and take a retrospective look into her life and work.
Born Diane Nemerov on March 14th, 1923 to a wealthy family in New York – wealthy in the sense that they owned Russek’s, which was a famous 5th Ave. department store – she did not have to grow up with a hard life during one of the toughest times our Nation has ever faced. Diane (pronounced Dee-Ann by the way) took up photography after her marriage to Allan Arbus in 1941, when the pair began to take an interest in the craft and visited the gallery of Alfred Stieglitz. They began by taking photos for her father’s department store advertisements, and by 1946 they had formed a successful photography business and had regular clients such as: Glamour, Seventeen, Vogue & Harper’s Bazaar. Despite their famous clients, they both hated the fashion industry.
By 1962 Diane had left the commercial photography world, traded in her 35mm Nikon for a Rolleiflex and begun doing contract work for multiple magazines; additionally, throughout the 1960s Arbus taught photography at both the Parsons School of Design in New York and Rhode Island School of Design in, you guessed it, Rhode Island. However, it’s her personal work that she is most known for, portraits of the stranger sides of life and the characters to go along with it.
Her work was often found to be controversial – some would even say exploitive – but it was said numerous times that she formed long-lasting friendships with all of the “others” that she photographed, many of which were in intimate moments not often seen by outsiders. I have always found her images to be interesting in their honesty, though admittedly I do often find the subject matter to be rather strange or different. That being said, I respect her vision and creative eye, and it saddens me to read about the way in which she chose to end her own life.
Her work will live on forever and is often sold at auction for impressive sums, additionally it is regularly featured in many museums and galleries. In 2006 there was a film produced entitled Fur which was loosely based on her life and work, and though it is may not historically accurate, I thought it was still a relatively fun film to watch.
If you are interested in seeing more of Diane’s personal work, there are many books available and as mentioned her images can often be found in galleries and even museums if you’re looking to see something up close. Some recommended book titles are: Diane Arbus – An Aperture Monograph, Revelations and “Untitled”. In closing, Diane Arbus was a truly interesting artist with a wonderfully odd view of the world around her. It is indeed sad to read about her suicide, but I am glad it has not tainted the spirit of her work. I will leave you with a few more images from her and encourage you to look her up if you aren’t familiar with her life.
All images are ©Diane Arbus and her estate
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