Diane Arbus was originally born Diane Nemerov on March 14, 1923 to David Nemerov and Gertrude Russek Nemerov. She was the daughter of a wealthy New York businessman. Her family owned Russeks department store on Fifth Avenue, allowing Dian a pampered childhood. As a member of a prominent New York family, she grew up with a strong sense of what was “prohibited” and what was “acceptable” in high society. Diane’s world was a protected one, with little adversity; yet this very lack of adversity made her feel as thou she was living in ungrounded world.
As funny and different as it may seem, the ability to have a comfortable life was somehow painful for her. An extremely shy child, she was often fearful but told no one of her scary daydreams and nightmares. From what I gather her closest relationship was with her older brother, Howard. For Jr. High School, the seventh through the twelfth grade, Arbus attended Fieldstone School in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. At Fieldstone she became interested in public spectacles, rituals, and myths; ideas, which would later influence her photography work.
Here she also devoted much of her time and energy to art class sketching, painting, and clay sculpture. During this period of her life, Arbus and several of her friends began exploring the city of New York. On their own they would take the subway, getting off in unfamiliar areas, Brooklyn or the Bronx. They would go out to observe and following interesting or unusual passers. At the young age of 14 Diane met her future husband. Allan Arbus, a 19-year-old City College student who was employed in the art department at Russeks, her father’s store. They say for the young happy couple.
Her parents obviously disapproved, as he was not of the same wealth class. However their disapproval only served to heighten Diane’s conviction to marry him. Diane saw in marriage a way to escape from all that was restricting and oppressive in her family life. In many ways, Allan represented the freedom she had been searching for. They were married, on April 10, 1941, with only their immediate families present. At the start of their new lives, to ease financial burdens her husband Allan supplemented his income by working as a salesman and also by doing some fashion photography.
Diane Arbus soon became his assistant. World War II came and Allan was sent to a photography school near Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. Soon after Arbus relocated to nearby, Red Bank, and set up a darkroom in their bathroom. As a way to learn Allan taught her everything he was learning in school. May of 1944 came and Allan was transferred to another photography school in Astoria, Queens. By this time Diane was pregnant. She was having their first child, Doon Arbus, who was born April 3, 1945. During the 1940s however, Arbus briefly studied under photographer Berenice Abbott.
Learning all she could about photography she and her, husband teamed up as fashion photographers. Their first customer was her father’s business, Russeks. They were first published in the magazine May 1947 issue of Glamour. This would mark the beginning of a long association with (Conde Nast publishing) firm. Their forte was shooting models in motion. For some reason, the Arbuse’s despised the shallowness of the fashion and the magazine industry. Working in the fashion industry with all the glamour and glitz brought her lots of stress. During this period her only real joy was photographing friends and relatives.
She would often wear a camera around her neck at friend and family events. On April 16, 1954, Diane became a mother for the second time. She gave birth to her second daughter, Army Arbus. Now in addition to her fashion work she was also photographing children. She would go out to Spanish Harlem in New York to photograph stranger’s children. In the 1950s she also found herself increasingly attracted to nontraditional people, people on the fringes of normal society. This new avenue provided a release from the oppression felt in the fashion world.
During this time of her life she also suffered from recurring bouts of depression. Due to her mental state in 1957 the couple decided to make a drastic change. He would continue to run their fashion studio, leaving her free to find and photographic subjects of her own choosing. Diane began attended Alexey Brodovitch’s workshops at a New School. However Arbus found herself drawn to the work of photographs like (Weegee) Arthur Fellig, Louis Faurer, Robert Frank and, especially to the unusual pictures of Lisette Model. In 1958 Arbus enrolled in a class, Model was offering at a New School.
It was during this period Diane decided, what she really wanted to pursue photographing “the different. ” She saw her camera as a sort of all access pass, that allowed her to be curious, nosy, and to explore the lives of others. Gradually she overcame her shyness. She enjoyed the ability of going where she never gone before as she did as young child. She would enter the lives and homes of others and confronted that which she had never had in her own overprotected childhood. Her teacher Model taught her to be specific, that if you pay close scrutiny to reality it produces something fantastic.
In her early projects, she undertook photographing what she referred to as “freaks. ” She responded to them with a mixture of shame and understanding. For some reason she always identified with her subjects “ the freaks” in a personal way. You could refer to Arbus’ “specific subject matter” as “freaks, homosexuals, lesbians, cripples, sick people, dying people, and even dead people. ” Like Weegee instead of looking away from such people, as do most of us, she looked directly at these individuals, treating them as a serious part of humanity.
As a result, they opened their arms to her as one of their own making her work original and unique. In1960, When Arbus and her husband separated, her work became increasingly independent. During that period she began her series of circus images, photographing midget clowns, tattooed men, and sideshow freaks. Diane was frequently seen at Hubert’s Freak Museum at Broadway and 42nd Street, fascinated by the figures she saw. To build a repot she returned again and again until her subjects knew and felt comfortable around her. She also frequented the Times Square area, getting to know the thugs and bag ladies.
Arbus’s style, was to pose her subjects, them looking directly into the camera, just as she looked directly at them. For her, the freaks were always more important than the picture. She said, “I don’t like to arrange things; I arrange myself. ” She was a firm believer that there were things in life everyone overlooked and no one would ever see, unless she photographed it. In the early 1960s Arbus began to photograph, nudists. She visited nudist camps in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, were she agreed to take her clothing off in order to be allowed to stay with them.
This period was particularly productive for her, 1962 to 1964. It was during this period Arbus’ won her first Guggenheim fellowship for a project on “American rites, manners, and customs”. Of Arbus’ pictures three were shown in John Szarkowski’s 1965 show at the MOMA, (Museum of Modern Art) “Recent Acquisitions”. There were two from her series on nudists and one of two female impersonators back stage. These honest images shocked and often repelled Viewers. Later her work was included, along with that of Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand, in Szarkowski’s “New Documents urvey of 1967)” exhibition at the MOMA. The show, which opened March 6, marked the pinnacle of her career while she lived. It included some 30 examples of her work. Critics called her “the wizard of odds. “, “the peeping Tom in all of us. ” From 1966 on Arbus struggled with bouts of hepatitis, which often left her extremely depressed. In 1969, Allan Arbus, her life long partner, formally divorced her leaving her devastated. He married Mariclare Costello soon after the divorce. To cope with this difficult period Arbus photographed many influential figures of the 1960s: F.
Lee Bailey, Jacqueline Susann, Coretta Scott King. Diane Arbus committed suicide in her New York apartment on July 26, 1971. In 1972, a year after she committed suicide, Arbus became the first American photographer to have photographs displayed at the Venice Biennale. Her show broke the attendance record set by the Edward Steichen’s noted 1955 photographic exhibit Family Of Men which did include a photograph by the Arbuses of a father and son reading a newspaper, Millions of people viewed traveling exhibitions of her work in 1972-1979.
In 2003-2006, Arbus and her work were the subjects of a 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. To this day her work continues to draw discushions and provoked controversy. Norman Mailer was quoted in 1971 as saying “Giving a camera to Diane Arbus is like putting a live grenade in the hands of a child. “