Diane Arbus (1923-1971) is one of the most celebrated American photographers of the twentieth century, renowned for her black and white portraits of people on the fringes of society. Arbus would often spend hours with her subjects, photographing them in the confines of their own space, which is what gives her portraits a striking honesty and intimacy.
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Arbus was born Diane Nemerov in New York in 1923. Having been born into a wealthy family, Arbus’ youth was spent trying to separate herself from her privileged upbringing and her work played an integral role in her attempting to achieve that.
She met her husband, Allan Arbus, in 1936, while he was working at her family’s fashion department store, Russek’s, and married him in 1941. Her husband encouraged her interest in photography and bought Arbus her first camera. She soon after took a photography course with the photographer Berenice Abbott at the New School in New York.
With her husband, Arbus began her career as a fashion photographer, creating images for magazines including Glamour and Vogue. In 1956, she returned to the New School to start an apprenticeship with the older street photographer Lisette Model. After struggling to find what she really wanted to photograph, Model encouraged Arbus to only capture what excited her. Following this advice, Arbus began regularly photographing marginalised figures, or those regarded as outcasts by mainstream society. Arbus once said that, ‘I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them.’ Her photographs of children and eccentrics, couples and circus performers, female impersonators and Fifth Avenue pedestrians are amongst the most intimate and surprising images of the 1960s.
Her work is often regarded as controversial because of the provocative nature of the subject matter; some believe it to be uncomfortable and disturbing, whilst others consider it to be endearing and compassionate. Arbus would often spend hours with her subjects, photographing them in the confines of their own space, which is what gives her portraits a striking honesty and intimacy.
Arbus took her own life in 1971, aged 48, after a long battle with depression. She was the first photographer chosen to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, just one year later, in 1972.
Exhibitions and Awards
Her work continues to be a source of inspiration for many photographers today, and features in various collections and institutions around the world including the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh.