Diane Arbus was born as Diane Nemerov to David Nemerov and Gertrude Russek Nemerovon the 14th of March 1923. She had a younger sister who would become a sculptor and designer and an older brother, Howard Nemerov, who would later become United States Poet Laureate, and the father of the Americanist art historian Alexander Nemerov. The Nemerovs were a Jewish couple who lived in New York City and owned Russek’s, a famous Fifth Avenue department store and Diane’s father had employed the likes of Mathew Brady, Timothy O’Sullivan, Paul Strand, Bill Brandt, and Eugène Atget to take photographs for the store’s advertisements.
Diane attended the Fieldston School for Ethical Culture, a prep school and 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 and their second daughter Amy (who would later become a photographer), was born in 1954. Allan and Diane were to be separated in 1958 and divorced in 1969.
In 1946, after the war, the Arbuses had 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.” In 1956, Diane 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 35mm 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.
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.
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 to 1965 images of transgender people. 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.
Still, her work has been shown in a fair number of exhibitions and her life discussed in books and documentaries and has invited a wide range of criticisms.
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