Diane Arbus (March 14, 1923 – July 26, 1971) was an American photographer, noted for her portraits of people on the fringes of society. For her spare, realistic, and sometimes haunting subject matter she is considered a key figure in contemporary documentary photography. Although born into privileged circumstances, Arbus broke with conventional norms in her passionate pursuit of photographing the unusual.
She is noted by critics and art historians for her photographs depicting outsiders, such as tranvestites, dwarves, giants, prostitutes, and ordinary citizens in poses and settings conveying a disturbing uncanniness. For her honest portrayal of real people a New Yorker reviewer said of her work, she "sought out pain, ugliness, and disorder, and looked at it harder than probably any other photographer has done.
Diane (pronounced "dee-ANN") Nemerov was born in New York City into an upper class Jewish family. Her older brother, Howard Nemerov was appointed United States Poet Laureate on two separate occasions. Her family owned Russeks Department Store on Fifth Avenue. She attended the The Fieldston School in the Bronx where she became interested in myths, and ritual; ideas that later would inform her work. She also devoted time to art classes, studying painting, sketching, and clay modeling. She was described as having said that her privileged upbringing made her "immune" from hardship and that this was painful for her.
At age 14 she met her future husband, the actor Allan Arbus, who worked in her parents' department store. Despite their objections she married him soon after turning 18. When Allan started training as a photographer for the U.S. Army, he taught Diane the basics as well. As a husband-wife team, the Arbuses became successful in the fashion world: Allan was the photographer, Diane was the stylist. They did fashion shoots for Bonwit Teller and Condé Nast Publications. As Diane began to take her own photographs, she took formal lessons with Lisette Model at The New School in New York. Edward Steichen's noted photo exhibit, The Family of Man, held in 1955 at the Museum of Modern Art, included a photograph credited to the couple.
Together the Arbuses had two daughters, photographer Amy Arbus and writer and art director Doon Arbus, but, by 1959, the couple had separated.
In 1960, after separating from her husband, Arbus left fashion photography and worked extensively as a photojournalist creating photo essays that she sold to Esquire, the New York Times, Harper's Bazaar, and the Sunday Times magazine, among others. Her first publicly recognized work was an assignment done for Esquire editor and art director Robert Benton. Published under the title, "The Vertical Journey: Six Movements of a Moment Within the Heart of the City," it consisted of six portraits of an assortment of New Yorkers. Arbus said of her direct and personal style, I don't like to arrange things; I arrange myself. 
Arbus became more and more drawn to photographing unusual subjects. She frequented Hubert's Freak Museum at Broadway and Forty-second Street photographing circus images, midget clowns, tattooed men, and sideshow subjects. She would also repeatedly visit the Times Square area getting to know the homeless and derelicts. Arbus looked directly at these individuals, treating them seriously and humanely. As a result her work was always original and unique. Arbus was motivated by her belief that there were things that nobody would see unless she photographed them.
Arbus's early work was created using 35mm cameras, but by the 1960s Arbus adopted the Rolleiflex medium format twin-lens reflex. This format provided a square aspect ratio, higher image resolution, and a waist-level viewfinder that allowed Arbus to connect with her subjects in ways that a standard eye-level viewfinder did not. Arbus also experimented with the use of flashes in daylight, allowing her to highlight and separate her subjects from the background.
The years between 1962 and 1964 were productive for Arbus. Adding to her panoply of unusual subjects, she photographed a group of nudists. When the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) displayed the series of photos in a 1965 show, viewers were shocked. However, in 1963 Arbus received a Guggenheim Fellowship grant with a second one to follow in 1966, allowing her to photograph "American rites and customs, contests, and festivals...." At the pinnacle of her career in 1967, MoMA staged Arbus's first museum exhibit titled New Documents, which included the work of Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander.
From 1966 on Arbus struggled with hepatitis and depression. She continued, however, to photograph some important figures of the 1960s including F. Lee Bailey, Jacqueline Susann, and Coretta Scott King. She lectured at Parsons, Rhode Island School of Design, Cooper Union and Westbeth, the artists' community where she lived.
In July 1971, at the age of 48, Arbus committed suicide in her Greenwich Village apartment by ingesting barbiturates and then cutting her wrists. Her longtime friend, photographer Richard Avedon said of her, Nothing about her life, her photographs, or her death was accidental or ordinary. Her unique vision, her personal style, and the range of her subject matter provided a seminal influence in twentieth century photography.
Aperture magazine was crucial in reviving Arbus's artistic reputation. Former MoMA curator John Szarkowski prepared to stage a retrospective in 1972, but the accompanying Diane Arbus catalogue proposal was turned down by all the major publishing houses. Aperture's Michael E. Hoffman accepted the challenge, producing one of the most influential photography books. The Aperture monograph has since been reprinted 12 times, selling more than one hundred thousand copies. The MoMA retrospective traveled throughout North America attracting more than 7 million viewers. Also in 1972, Arbus became the first American photographer to be represented at the Venice Biennale. Arbus's photograph Identical Twins is tenth on the list of most expensive photographs having sold in 2004 for $478,400.
Some critics claim that Arbus's voyeuristic approach demeaned her subjects. However, admirers of her work like filmmaker Todd Solondz, have passionately defended Arbus. Raul Nino in Booklist states that Arbus's images are jarring yet magic…give a lyrical poke at our collective subconscious, to wake us up—and remind us to look.  In an effort to dispel this image of only photographing freaks, Arbus undertook a study of conventional people, including Gloria Vanderbilt's infant son, future CNN anchorman Anderson Cooper, for Harper's Bazaar.
All links retrieved July 12, 2016.
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