Diane Arbus

It is only a few months down the road that I did an exercise on Diane Arbus for the Context and Narrative module. My posting can be seen here.

Diane Arbus was born in 1923 in New York to Russian Jewish immigrants, David and Gertrude Nemerov. Her father owned a women’s clothing and fur store and she grew up in an affluent home, quite sheltered from the world. She went on to marry Allan Arbus and together they worked together in fashion photography. Together they achieve success, having their work published in magazines such as Glamour, Vogue and Seventeen. Diane Arbus tired of fashion photography and decided to study photography with Alexey Brodovitch. Not liking his workshops she signed up to study with Lizette Model who was her great influence. Arbus had six photos published in Esquire Magazine in 1960 and another five in Harper’s Bazaar in 1961. However, her big break came when John Szarkowski exhibited thirty two of her portraits alongside works by Garry Wingogrand and Lee Friedlander at MOMA in the New Documents exhibition. Arbus was labelled as ‘a photographer of “the margins of society”‘ by Newsweek (Lord p.113). She committed suicide in 1971.

Catherine Lord’s essay: ‘What Becomes a Legend Most: The Short, Sad Career of Diane Arbus’ (Bolton, 1992), discusses Patricia Bosworth’s unauthorized biography on Diane Arbus in great length, extrapolating large sections that are solely based on hyperbole and supposition. The book has no bibliography or footnotes whatsoever. It seems that much of the urban myths surrounding Arbus originate from this book. In a radio interview with Studs Terkel a couple of years before taking her own life, Arbus talks about the sheltered life she led and makes an interesting statement that reveals her ongoing problems with her self-confidence:

When I make money on a photo I assume it isn’t good.

Diane Arbus

A young man and his pregnant wife in Washington Square Park, NYC, 1965 by Diane Arbus
Fig. 1. A young man and his pregnant wife in Washington Square Park, NYC, 1965 by Diane Arbus

Arbus approached her work like a journalist, but at the same time she was introspective. She was drawn lookalikes i.e. twins or people resembling celebrities. She was also drawn to people in marginalized societies and freaks.

It is the strained distance between the subjects of her photographs that grabs the viewer. Her work is “investigative, but far too personal to be documentary; it is portraiture, but with a super-abundance of narrative and allegory” (Kozloff, p. 197).

One can see all these elements in Fig. 1. The young man with a remarkable resemblance to Malcolm X sits on a park bench with his arm awkwardly hooked around the neck of his pregnant wife. She is wearing cat eye spectacles, that were very popular in the 60’s and has a large beehive piled on top of her head, in an Elizabeth Taylor fashion and looks older and more sophisticated than him. His head is leaning towards her’s, but her head is straining away. He does not sit close to her, there is a large gap between their torsos. Her arm is stretched out over the gap and held in place on his leg by his other hand. Both subjects look at the camera/viewer, his expression is one of defiance, her’s is one of embarrassment. This photo was taken during the American civil rights movement and this couple would have qualified as the marginalized people that Arbus was drawn to, as interracial marriages was only fully legalized in all the US States in 1967.


Diane Arbus Talks with Studs Terkel. (1969) [radio programme, online] Pres. The Chicago History Museum. WFMT Radio Station, Chicago, Illinois At: https://archive.org/details/popuparchive-1851554 (Accessed 20 May, 2016)

Kazloff, Max (2007). The Theatre of the Face: Portrait Photography Since 1900. London: Phaidon Press. pp. 196-199

Lord, Catherine (n.d.) ‘What Becomes a Legend Most: The Short, Sad Career of Diane Arbus’ In: Bolton, Richard (ed.) The Context of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography: Cambridge: MIT Press. pp. 111-123


Figure 1. Arbus, D (1965). A young man and his pregnant wife in Washington Square Park, NYC, 1965. Photographs, gelatin silver print. Available at: http://www.artnet.com/artists/diane-arbus/a-young-man-and-his-pregnant-wife-in-washington-a-0LakdqLXGQz7ZMLhZasVzg2 (Accessed on 23 May, 2016)


Interracial marriage in the United States (n.d.) (online). Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interracial_marriage_in_the_United_States (Accessed 23 May, 2016)





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