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 was born into a wealthy New York Jewish family, who owned a fashionable New York Department Store. She was educated in New York City’s Ethical Culture and Fieldstone schools. In the early 1940s Arbus began taking photographs. With no lengthy formal training, she studied with Lisette Model and Berenice Abbott at The New School. She also found inspiration at An American Place, Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery of photography and modernist 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. Her artistic process was to roam the streets of New York, often following strangers to find subjects she felt compelled to photograph. Sometimes she would develop a personal relationship with them.
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; and failed bisexual 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.”