Diane Arbus was an American photographer, one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century. Her iconic images of marginal people altered the course of contemporary art. Arbus concentrated on photographing people that – by accident, birth, or choice – had made their way outside of the established channels of society. Even her photographs of everyday people, fixed in unrehearsed poses, became transformed into grotesques.
Arbus was born into a wealthy New York Jewish family, who owned a fashionable New York Department Store. In the early 1940s Arbus began taking photographs. With no lengthy formal training, she found her way into the classes of two notable photographers, Berenice Abbott and Lisette Model. She also found inspiration at An American Place, Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery of photography and modernist art.
Her early marriage to Alan Arbus produced two daughters as well as a successful fashion photography partnership, which they maintained for approximately ten years. In 1956, their marriage and commercial partnership ended. She was 33 years old. Even after they divorced, the two remained friends with Alan Arbus still involved with her photography.
She received two Guggenheim Fellowships in 1963 and 1966. In 1967, she was in the MoMA seminal exhibition show “New Documents” along with photographers Leo Friedlander and Gerry Winograd. Her work was unique and controversial, and it garnered the most attention. Some viewers found her work unhealthy and mocking of her subjects. Others saw Arbus as looking sympathetically at marginalized people, asking us to look closely at them in a humane way.
In 1971, suffering from lifelong depression; a hinted-at possible incestuous relationship with her brother the poet Howard Nemerov; many damaged love affairs with both men and women, Arbus committed suicide. Her work now became even more controversial than before with viewers re-examining her photographs to see if they could better understand her tragic end.
In 1972, a year after her death, she was the first American photographer to have her photos displayed at the Venice Biennale. A 1972 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art had viewers reacting very negatively against her unsettling images. Between 2003-2006 her work was in a traveling exhibition, “Diane Arbus Revelations.”