Diane Arbus was an American photographer and writer noted for black-and-white square photographs of "deviant and marginal people (dwarfs, giants, transgender people, nudists, circus performers) or of people whose normality seems ugly or surreal". Arbus believed a camera could be "a little bit cold, a little bit harsh", but that its scrutiny revealed the truth—the difference between what people wanted others to see, and what they really did see: the flaws. A friend said that Arbus said she was "afraid ... that she would be known simply as 'the photographer of freaks'"; ironically, that phrase has been repeatedly used to describe her.
In 1972, a year after she took her own life, Arbus became the first American photographer to have photographs displayed at the Venice Biennale. Millions viewed traveling exhibitions of her work in 1972–1979. Between 2003 and 2006, Arbus and her work were the subjects of another major traveling exhibition, Diane Arbus Revelations. In 2006, the motion picture Fur, starring Nicole Kidman as Arbus, presented a fictional version of her life story.
Arbus was born Diane Nemerov to David Nemerov and Gertrude Russek Nemerov, a Jewish couple who lived in New York City and owned Russek's, a famous Fifth Avenue department store. Because of her family's wealth, Arbus was insulated from the effects of the Great Depression while growing up in the 1930s. Her father became a painter after retiring from Russek's; her younger sister would become a sculptor and designer; and her older brother, Howard Nemerov, would later become United States Poet Laureate and the father of the Americanist art historian Alexander Nemerov.
Diane Nemerov attended the Fieldston School for Ethical Culture, a prep school. In 1941, at the age of eighteen, she married her childhood sweetheart Allan Arbus. Their first daughter, Doon, who would later become a writer, was born in 1945; their second daughter, Amy, who would later become a photographer, was born in 1954.
Diane and Allan Arbus separated in 1958, and were divorced in 1969.
The Arbuses' interests in photography led them, in 1941, to visit the gallery of Alfred Stieglitz, and learn about the photographers Mathew Brady, Timothy O'Sullivan, Paul Strand, Bill Brandt, and Eugène Atget.:129 In the early 1940s, Diane's father employed them to take photographs for the department store's advertisements. Allan was a photographer for the U.S. Army Signal Corps in World War Two.
In 1946, after the war, the Arbuses began a commercial photography business called "Diane & Allan Arbus", with Diane as art director and Allan as the photographer. They contributed to Glamour, Seventeen, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and other magazines even though "they both hated the fashion world". Despite over 200 pages of their fashion editorial in Glamour, and over 80 pages in Vogue, the Arbuses' fashion photography has been described as of "middling quality". Edward Steichen's noted 1955 photographic exhibit, The Family of Man, did include a photograph by the Arbuses of a father and son reading a newspaper.
In 1956, Arbus quit the commercial photography business. Although earlier she had studied photography with Berenice Abbott, her studies with Lisette Model, beginning in 1956, led to Arbus's most well-known methods and style. She began photographing on assignment for magazines such as Esquire, Harper's Bazaar, and The Sunday Times Magazine in 1959. Around 1962, Arbus switched from a 35 mm Nikon camera which produced grainy rectangular images to a twin-lens reflex Rolleiflex camera which produced more detailed square images.
In 1963, Arbus was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for a project on "American rites, manners, and customs"; the fellowship was renewed in 1966. In 1964, Arbus began using a twin-lens reflex Mamiya camera with flash in addition to the Rolleiflex. Her methods included establishing a strong personal relationship with her subjects and re-photographing some of them over many years.
During the 1960s, she taught photography at the Parsons School of Design and the Cooper Union in New York City, and the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island. The first major exhibition of her photographs occurred at the Museum of Modern Art in a 1967 show called "New Documents", curated by John Szarkowski. The show also featured the work of Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander. Some of her artistic work was done on assignment. Although she continued to photograph on assignment (e.g., in 1968 she shot documentary photographs of poor sharecroppers in rural South Carolina for Esquire magazine), in general her magazine assignments decreased as her fame as an artist increased. Szarkowski hired Arbus in 1970 to research an exhibition on photojournalism called "From the Picture Press"; it included many photographs by Weegee whose work Arbus admired.
Using softer light than in her previous photography, she took a series of photographs in her later years of people with intellectual disability showing a range of emotions. At first, Arbus considered these photographs to be "lyric and tender and pretty", but by June, 1971, she told Lisette Model that she hated them.
Associating with other contemporary photographers such as Robert Frank and Saul Leiter, Arbus helped form what Jane Livingston has termed The New York School of photographers during the 1940s and 1950s. Among other photographers and artists she befriended during her career, she was close to photographer Richard Avedon; he was approximately the same age, his family had also run a Fifth Avenue department store, and many of his photographs were also characterized as detailed frontal poses. Another good friend was Marvin Israel, an artist, graphic designer, and art director whom Arbus met in 1959.:144
Arbus experienced "depressive episodes" during her life similar to those experienced by her mother, and the episodes may have been made worse by symptoms of hepatitis. Arbus wrote in 1968, "I go up and down a lot", and her ex-husband noted that she had "violent changes of mood". On July 26, 1971, while living at Westbeth Artists Community in New York City, Arbus took her own life by ingesting barbiturates and slashing her wrists with a razor. Marvin Israel found her body in the bathtub two days later; she was 48 years old.
Diane Arbus is the best known female photographer of her generation. As stated in the journal History of Photography in 2012, "The obsessive, self-indulgent, no-holds-barred quality of Diane Arbus's life, and the helpless, desperate nature of her death, have led to the photographer's being portrayed as a spectacularly flawed shooting star of photographic history." After Arbus's death, her daughter Doon managed Arbus's estate. She forbade examination of Arbus's correspondence and often denied permission for exhibition or reproduction of Arbus's photographs. The editors of an academic journal published a two-page complaint in 1993 about the estate's control over Arbus's images and its attempt to censor part of an article about Arbus. As of 2000, the estate would not release Arbus's 1957–1965 images of transvestites. A 2005 article called the estate's allowing the British press to reproduce only fifteen photographs an attempt to "control criticism and debate". The estate was also criticized in 2008 for minimizing Arbus's early commercial work.
In mid–1972, Arbus was the first American photographer to have photographs displayed at the Venice Biennale; her ten photographs were described as "the overwhelming sensation of the American Pavilion" and "an extraordinary achievement".
The Museum of Modern Art held a retrospective of Arbus's work in late 1972 that subsequently traveled around the United States and Canada through 1975; it was estimated that over seven million people saw the exhibition. A different retrospective traveled around the world between 1973 and 1979.
Doon Arbus and Marvin Israel edited and designed a 1972 book Diane Arbus (or Diane Arbus: an Aperture Monograph) accompanying the Museum of Modern Art's exhibition. It contained eighty of Arbus's photographs, as well as texts from classes that Arbus gave in 1971, some of Arbus's writings, and some of Arbus's interviews. The text in the book includes some of Arbus's most widely cited quotations such as:
Page 1: "My favorite thing is to go where I've never been".
Pages 1–2: "Our whole guise is like giving a sign to the world to think of us in a certain way but there's a point between what you want people to know about you and what you can't help people knowing about you. And that has to do with what I've always called the gap between intention and effect."
Page 3: "Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot.... Most people go through life dreading they'll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They've already passed their test in life. They're aristocrats."
Page 15: "I do feel I have some slight corner on something about the quality of things. I mean it's very subtle and a little embarrassing to me, but I really believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them."
In 2001–2004 the 1972 book was selected as one of the most important photobooks in history. Over 300,000 copies of the book had been sold by 2004, unusual as "independent" photobooks are normally produced in editions of less than 5,000.
A half-hour documentary film about Arbus's life and work known as Masters of Photography: Diane Arbus or Going Where I've Never Been: the Photography of Diane Arbus was produced in 1972 and released on video in 1989.