She photographed people on “society’s fringe”, shocking to the senses of those who sit and watch the parade of conventionally beautiful people parading across the news shows of the morning, noon and night. The people she photographed agreed to let her “invade their space”, invade the anonymity that they achieved by being “unconventional”, by not being “normal” when “normal” is achieved by so very few in our society.
So who was Diane Arbus? Simply put, the first thing you must do is pronounce her name correctly: “dee·ann ar·biss”
She photographed marginalized or people on the “fringes” of society—dwarfs, giants, transgender people, nudists, circus performers—and others whose normality was perceived by the general populace as ugly or surreal.
She was born into wealth, so much so that most of the “pain” experienced by people of her generation, the Depression era, surpassed her without even a wrinkle in her family’s lifestyle. Her name at birth was Diane Nemerov, her parents were David Nemerov and Gertrude Russek Nemerov. They lived in New York City and owned Russek’s, a famous fifth avenue department store.
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. Wikipedia
Similar to the conventional women of her era she married her childhood sweetheart, Allan Arbus, after attending prep school. They had two daughters, Doon in 1945 and Amy in 1954. They divorced in 1969 after 10 years of separation and after the children were grown.
Both Allan and Diane were interested in photography. 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”.
In 1956, Arbus quit the commercial photography business. 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. Wikipedia
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. Wikipedia
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. http://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/14/magazine/arbus-reconsidered.html
“During her lifetime, Arbus was lionized, but she was also lambasted for being exploitative. Her suicide in 1971 seemed to corroborate the caricature of her as a freaky ghoul. The critic Susan Sontag divined that Arbus photographed ”people who are pathetic, pitiable, as well as repulsive,” from a vantage point ”based on distance, on privilege, on a feeling that what the viewer is asked to look at is really other.” Patricia Bosworth’s biography in 1984 took the suicide as an emblem of the life and told a lurid tale that is neatly summarized by the tag line on the paperback edition: ”HER CAMERA WAS THE WINDOW TO A TORTURED SOUL.””
Sometimes it is instructive to explore lives that don’t have the “storybook” ending that many seek and very few achieve.
The featured photograph:
- Identical Twins, Roselle, N.J. 1967 — Young twin sisters Cathleen and Colleen Wadestand side by side in dark dresses. The twin on the right slightly smiles and twin on the left slightly frowns.This photograph is echoed in Stanley Kubrick‘s film The Shining, which features twins in an identical pose as ghosts. A print was sold at auction for $478,400 in 2004.