Article abstract: A pivotal figure in contemporary documentary photography, Diane Arbus created startling images of dwarfs, twins, transvestites, and physically deformed individuals that were always controversial and often misunderstood.
Diane Nemerov was born to a wealthy family in New York City. Her father, David Nemerov, owned a fashionable Fifth Avenue department store called Russeks, which his wife’s family had founded. Diane attended Ethical Culture and Fieldston schools, which were considered to be progressive institutions. At school, Arbus exhibited much creativity, particularly in art class, where she sketched, painted in oils, sculpted, and made collages.
When she was thirteen she met Allan Arbus, a copy boy in her father’s department store and an aspiring actor. They fell madly in love, and for the next four years carried on a passionate courtship with clandestine meetings, secret phone calls, rendezvous in Central Park, and hand-delivered letters. Aside from her brother, Howard, with whom Diane always shared a close relationship, Allan became the most important person in Diane’s life.
Under Allan’s influence, Diane began creating her own style and look. In her parents’ home she had been taught that hairiness, menstruation, and body odors made one “impure.” Rebelling against her parents’ preoccupation with cleanliness, Diane always believed in female naturalness. She could understand neither why women were kept in a state of innocence about their bodies nor why they were denied their sensuality. In time Diane chose to wear no deodorant. As she grew older, people— particularly men—would comment in embarrassed tones about her body odor. Never-theless, she always carried herself proudly, ignoring their comments.
In 1941, when Diane was eighteen, she and Allan Arbus were married. Three years later she bore a daughter, whom she named Doon. It was during this period that she began to express an interest in photography. When her husband returned from the army, where he was trained as a photographer, he finally decided to go into fashion photography, with Diane as his partner. The couple had dabbled in this work briefly in 1941 and had been rather successful, although neither of them had any interest in fashion. Her father asked Diane and her husband to take advertising photographs for his store, and in the beginning of their career, Diane and Allan worked only inside the photography studio at Russeks. The couple collaborated as photographers for almost twenty years, eventually producing fashion photographs for Harper’s Bazaar. Despite her early efforts, Diane once said that she did not begin photographing seriously until she was thirty-eight years old. Before that she had spent her time learning to be a good wife and mother.
Between 1955 and 1957, Diane Arbus studied photography under Lisette Model, the most famous teacher of photography in the country at the time. Model taught Arbus everything she knew and encouraged her pupil to concentrate on personal photographs and to develop further what Model recognized as a uniquely incisive documentary eye. Soon after Arbus began her studies with Model, she began to devote herself fully to documenting transvestites, twins, midgets, and asylum inmates, as well as various other people on the streets and in their homes. Model knew that Arbus was fragile as a person but strong as an artist. She also understood that Arbus needed to shoot photographs in order to relieve her mind of the faces and specters that were haunting it. Through some mysterious, unconscious force, Arbus was beginning to create in her photographs a kind of art that would be both a release and a vindication of her life, and Model more than anyone understood this.
Arbus later commented to friends that her desire to be daring originated in an overly protective, overly organized childhood in which she broke the monotony and defied the security of home by being naughty. What she rebelled against in her childhood was not the restrictions, however, but the loss of reality imposed by her sheltered life. She was determined to reveal what others had been taught to turn their backs on. As she had rejected her family values, she rejected fashion and went on to look for experiences less fictitious, more factual, and also to respond to a growing sense of self-awareness.
In 1965, three of Arbus’ earliest photographs were included in a show at the Museum of Modern Art called “Recent Acquisitions,” along with the work of two other influential new photographers, Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander. Her images, which stripped away all artiness and evoked powerful emotions, were described as direct and...
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