An American writer and photographer famous for black and white photos of insignificant and abnormal people – Diane Arbus lived from 1923 to 1971. She was born to a Jewish family that owned a popular departmental store, Russek’s. In the 1930s, while growing up Diane was immune to the effects of Great Depression since her family was wealthy enough to survive through it. Although her family name was Nemerov but Arbus as her second name became well-known in regards to her career. The change happened because she married Allan Arbus, her childhood crush in 1941.
In the same year, their curiosity towards photography urged them to visit Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery and study about photographers, like Eugène Atget, Bill Brandt, Timothy O’Sullivan, Mathew Brady and Paul Strand. Diane’s father employed the Arbus couple to take pictures for the advertising campaign of his store in 1940s.
The duo opened their own business of advertising photography by the name of Diane and Allan Arbus. Allan was the photographer and Diane was the director of art. They contributed their work to many magazines, including Glamour, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue and Seventeen.
In 1956, Diane quit this business. While studying with Lisette Model, Diane started to develop her well-known and personal style and method of photography. She started to do photographic assignments for Esquire, The Sunday Times magazine etc in 1959. Just about in 1962, she switched to a twin lens reflex camera Rolleiflex from a Nikon 35mm. This change helped her produced square photographs with more details.
Diane Arbus was a photography teacher at the Cooper Union and Parsons School of Design in New York. She also taught at the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence. Her photographs were shown in 1967 at the Museum of Modern Art exhibition titled New Documents. As her popularity was increasing, she was getting less work from the magazines. In 1970, John Szarkowski hired Diane to conduct research on From the Picture Press, a photojournalism exhibition.
Some of her well-known photographs are: A Young Man in Curlers at Home in West 20th Street, 1996; A Naked Man Being a Woman, 1968; A Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents in The Bronx, 1970; Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967; A Very Young Baby,1968; Teenage Couple on Hudson Street,1963; Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, 1962; and some other pictures as well. Most of these were shot in New York City or its suburbs.
Diane received much criticism about her work. Susan Sontag criticized Diane’s work in her essay Freak Show in 1973 and in her book America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly in 1977. Sontag described Diane’s work as lacking beauty and that her photographs failed to fill compassion in the hearts of viewers for her subjects. There were other critics who had varying views about Diane’s work. Some praised her and some described her images as humiliating her subjects and showing her suspicion about humans being dull and ugly. Other critics include Max Kozloff, Robert Hughes, Judith Goldman, Hilton Kramer, Jed Perl, David Pagel, Peter Schjeldahl, Ken Johnson, Brian Sewell, Leo Rubinfien, Wayne Koestenbaum and Stephanie Zacharek.
Diane has had many noteworthy solo exhibitions from 1972 to 2013, all after her death. Places where her work has been shown are: Museum of Modern Art in New York, Arles’ Théâtre Antique, Rencontres d’Arles festival in France, Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts, Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Hayward Gallery in London, Seattle Art Museum, and several other locations around the world.