Diane Arbus

Eyridiki Sellou | Jan 13, 2024

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Diane Arbus, born Diane Nemerov (New York, March 14, 1923 - Greenwich Village, July 26, 1971), was a Russian-born American photographer.

The photographs for which Arbus is best known are those that portray human beings in their diversity, in their deviation from the "normality" taken for granted, a normality sometimes challenged by nature itself, sometimes by personal choices. His approach, however, is never voyeuristic; on the contrary, the awareness of diversity does not detract from his subjects, as could easily have been the case. In most of his portraits, the subjects are in their own environment, seemingly at ease; instead, it is the viewer who is made uncomfortable by the subject's acceptance of his or her own "freak" status.

In the 1960s he received two fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and taught photography at several schools in New York and Amherst in the last years of his life. Following increasingly frequent bouts of depression, he took his own life on July 26, 1971.

Youth (1923-1945)

Diane Nemerov was born into a wealthy New York Jewish family that owned the Russek's department store chain: her father was David Nemerov and her mother Gertrude Russek. She is the second of three children: her older brother, Howard Nemerov, older than Diane by three years, will become known as a major American poet; her younger sister, Renée, is a sculptor. Her father David, after retiring from business will also be a painter, with some commercial success. From 1930 Diane attended the "Ethical culture school" in New York and in later years the Fieldston School.

When she was only 14, she met Allan Arbus, five years older, then a salesman at Russek's, and fell in love with him. The relationship is frowned upon by Diane's family, but she marries him as soon as she turns 18, on April 10, 1941. Nevertheless, the Nemerovs remain on good terms with their daughter. The young couple's first job is an advertising photo shoot for her father's chain, Russek's Department Store. Diane is considered a very gifted girl and is encouraged to take private drawing lessons, but in order to marry Allan she does not hesitate to give up college. During World War II Allan does his military service working as a photographer for the army. In late 1944 Allan is active in Burma, and on April 3, 1945, daughter Doon Arbus is born. At that time Diane returns to stay at home with her parents.

Diane and Allan Arbus photographers (1945-1959)

At the end of the conflict Allan and Diane decide to be photographers, since by 1941 they had already worked briefly in fashion and Allan had accumulated considerable experience as a photographer in the army. At first it appears that Diane merely acts as Allan's assistant; the studio, however, is called "Diane & Allan Arbus." Arbus would study photography briefly with Berenice Abbott in 1947, then with Brodovitch in 1955, finally with Lisette Model, with whom she studied in 1956 and 1957. In an interview with Newsweek Diane recounts her friendship with Model this way, "Until I studied with Lisette I dreamed of making photographs, but I didn't really make them. Lisette told me that I had to have fun doing it...." Experiences with Aleksej Česlavovič Brodovič, Art Direcor of Harper's Bazaar, at the New School for Social Research, and with Berenice Abbott served her well, but the best results were definitely due to Model's teaching. It was through her experience with Lisette that Diane overcame her shyness and found the courage to photograph the subjects she desired. The couple's first published service was in 1947, in Glamour. It is a service on pullovers. With Glamour they would work often in the following years, but also with Seventeen and Vogue magazines.

In 1951 Diane and Allan left fashion work for a year to travel to Europe. On April 16, 1954, their second daughter Amy Arbus was born. Diane refused anesthesia for the birth, and is said to have described it as one of the best experiences of her life. During these years Diane met a young Stanley Kubrick, then a fledgling photographer. In 1955 a photograph of Diane and Allan, a father reading the newspaper to his son, lying in bed, is shown in Edward Steichen's monumental exhibition The Family of Man. Diane would only collaborate with her husband Allan until 1956, although photographs would appear for a few more years that continued to bear the credits of both of them.

Still in the late 1950s Diane works with a Nikon 35mm camera. "At first I liked the grain. I was fascinated by its effect in the print, because all those little dots formed a tapestry and every detail had to be read through them. Skin was like water and sky, you had more to do with light and shadow than flesh and blood," she would say in an interview years later (Aperture 1972, transcript of a 1971 lecture). In 1957 Diane's father, David Nemerov, left the presidency of the family business and as a retiree turned to painting with some commercial success. In 1958 at an exhibition he sells forty-two oil paintings. Diane and Allan also meet Robert Frank and his wife Mary in 1958 in the midst of filming Pull my daisy; Allan, who always wanted to be an actor, has a small part in the film. In the period between 1957 and 1960 Diane discovered Hubert's Museum, a "shanty" located at the corner of 42nd and Broadway, where an array of bizarre figures performed that Arbus would photograph several times over the years. Around this time Diane and Allan's marriage went on the rocks. The two separate in 1958, but do not inform her family until three years later. They divorce eleven years later, in 1969.

After her separation from her husband Allan (1959-1965).

Diane meets Emile De Antonio, distributor of Robert Frank's film Pull my daisy. Emile, known as "De" shows Arbus Freaks, the 1932 Tod Browning film that has already become a cult movie. Given Arbus's subject matter, it is certainly one of the films that comes closest to her aesthetic. She is said to have seen and rewatched it multiple times. Another place where we often find Diane Arbus taking photographs is Club '82, located in lower Manhattan and frequented by a number of very peculiar figures. Early subjects photographed by Arbus in these years include Miss Stormé de Larverie, the woman who dresses as a man, and Moondog, a blind giant with a large beard and Viking horns who spends eight hours a day at West 50th and Sixth Avenue. It should be noted that Arbus does not just photograph these characters in passing, but establishes a real, sometimes deep, friendship with them. Many of them are photographed several times over the years, as is the case with the Mexican man with dwarfism Cha cha cha, stage name Lauro Morales, portrayed in one of Arbus's most famous photos. The first photos of the man are from 1960, and it is still the Nikon 35 mm camera used; until the one that became famous in 1970 taken with the Mamiya, a medium format camera. Many of the key players at Hubert's Museum, the 42nd Street wonderland, are also frequently portrayed by Arbus. Although she is initially viewed with suspicion by her subjects, she often manages to establish an intimate relationship with the people photographed, and to be accepted by them.

His first publication was The Vertical Journey, six photos published in 1960 in Esquire magazine. This was followed in 1961 by The Full Circle in Harper's Bazaar. Her subjects represented such an unusual choice that they were published only because of the insistence of Marvin Israel, her close friend (and lover, according to Bosworth's biography), who at the time had just become art director for the magazine. Indeed, it seems that Nancy White, editor-in-chief of Harper's Bazaar, was against the publication. Indeed, the immediate result was some cancellation of the magazine's subscription. It should be noted how both titles are also refined quotations from literature. The Vertical Journey from Alice's Alice in Wonderland, and Shakespeare's The Full Circle (The full circle. Who is he that can tell me who I am?) 1962 is the year of the transition to Rollei, not without some initial difficulties. Arbus also develops a new strand of interest, that of nudists. Also in 1962 Show publishes Arbus's photos of Mae West, but the diva seems not to have liked them very much. Difficulties with the subjects she portrayed for commissioned work, who did not like the way Arbus portrayed them at all, would be one of the constants in her work. In 1963 Diane Arbus won her first Guggenheim fellowship. During these years she frequented the famous fashion photographer Richard Avedon. Between 1964 and 1965 Diane Arbus is often around New York taking photographs.

MOMA and Guggenheim Fellowships (1965-1969)

In 1965 MOMA presented three of Arbus's photographs in an exhibition entitled Recent Acquisitions. The year before it had purchased six images from her (plus one as a gift). The public reaction was not one of indifference, and often the photographs had to be cleaned of visitors' spit. In 1965 Diane taught a photography course at the Parson school of design. Instead of having students study art in books Arbus takes students to see works in museums. In 1966 Diane is in Jamaica, photographing children's fashion pictures for the New York Times. In 1967 MOMA exhibits thirty of her photos in the exhibition New Documents, along with photos by Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander.

The exhibition is a great success, despite the accompanying controversy. The label of "monster photographer" being sewn onto her does not appeal to Diane. According to Bosworth, Diane always suffered from bouts of depression, but because of a hepatitis she contracted in 1968-perhaps caused by drug abuse-she stopped taking antidepressants. In April 1969 she is in London, photographing for Nova and Sunday Times magazines. Her photos of celebrity look-alikes come out in Nova: these are the years when Diane is often seen at pro- and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. At the end of 1969 Arbus moves to Wesbeth, a New York apartment building that by statute accepts only artists.

A course for a Pentax (1970-1971)

In 1970 he tries out the Pentax 6x7 of a photographer friend of his, Hiro. She was thrilled with it; the proportions are about the same as the 8x10 plates in the view cameras used in fashion photos. Moreover, the view through the viewfinder reminds her of that of "a big 35mm." In order to buy it, she organized a photography course attended by 28 students, among whom we find Eva Rubinstein, daughter of the great pianist Arthur Rubinstein, also destined to become a great photographer. Arbus is now a legend among young photographers. In 1970 Art Forum published her photos, which is very unusual for a monthly magazine that usually deals with abstract art. In 1970 Diane begins photographing disabled people in an institution. As is her wont, it is not just one photo session, but she will return there several times. This is the series that will become known after her death under the title Untitled.

Arbus confided to Lisette Model that she had changed her mind about her results. Says Model, "Initially she was very happy about it, but now she felt she had lost control of the situation." Arbus's later subjects also include prostitutes and clients in some S&M brothels. Only a few shots of these works are known. By now the depression from which she has always suffered has become more severe, and she seems to have lost interest in photography. The increasing burden of responsibility associated with success also seems to contribute to crushing her. On July 26, 1971, she committed suicide, ingesting a heavy dose of barbiturates and cutting her wrists in the bathtub. She is found a couple of days later, her body already in an advanced state of decomposition.

After his death

The consecration of Diane Arbus began in 1972. First the Aperture Monograph and then the exhibition of her photographs at the Venice Biennale, a participation decided by Arbus shortly before her death, propelled her directly into the Olympus of the greats. Among Arbus's major exhibitions after her death, we only mention Diane Arbus Revelations of 2004, which for the first time makes available to the public a large amount of biographical documents and many previously unpublished photos.

"She come to them" is the slogan that best sums up Arbus's style. She would come to them, and when something in the scene did not fit, it was not the scene that was changed, but the photographer who adapted.

Diane Arbus began photographing beginning in the 1940s, using a 35 mm Nikon, but it was not until the encouragement of photographer Lisette Model that she overcame her shyness and began (in 1957) to photograph the subjects that really interested her. We can ideally make Diane Arbus's personal work begin as early as 1956, when she began numbering her contact specimens starting with No. 1. She will provin and number more than 7,500 rolls until 1971, the year of her suicide. Until 1962 he will use almost exclusively the 35 mm (a Nikon) which he will abandon permanently in 1963 in favor of the medium format 6 × 6 cm, a Rolleiflex Bioptic, used occasionally in the early years and then a Mamiya C33, also bioptic but equipped with a convenient electronic flash. Photos taken with the brightening flash would become his "trademark" and would be imitated by numerous photographers in later years. Since 1970 he has also used a Pentax 6x7.

It is useful to divide Arbus's work into three main strands, that of photographs of eccentric characters and freaks, with whom she always establishes a relationship of complicity and friendship, sometimes perhaps even of deep intimacy. That more or less on commission from the various magazines of portraits of characters, famous or not, and finally that of photos taken on the street. Marvin Israel on the subject of the latter says, "There are hundreds of specimens where the same face does not appear more than once and they are all close-ups." In these photographs Arbus concentrates the best of the eccentricity of her particular vision, showing the portrayed subjects without the slightest search for aesthetic embellishment, rather consciously going to the opposite extreme, even to the point of conscious provocation, as happens in one of her most famous photos: "Child with a toy hand grenade in central park" from 1962, in the "not-so-short" time frame that the contact specimen shows us we can see that the child's expression of annoyance is induced, in the before and after shots the subject's expression is relaxed, while in the decisive one the contraction of the face into a grimace is achieved by Arbus by delaying the moment of the shot, the child gets angry, he wants to be photographed. The audition reveals the mechanism that the power of the isolated shot hides from us. The magic of the great photographer does the rest.

Arbus's intimacy with her subjects is signaled to us in many ways: from the Cha cha cha dwarf to Marcello Mastroianni, the gallery of characters lying on a bed is endless. If that's not enough, there is a contact audition that goes further. It's 12 photos of a couple, she white and he black. She is naked and being cuddled by her husband, shirtless but wearing pants. If you look closely at the audition you realize that the woman in the middle photo is different. It is Arbus, also completely naked, lying on the black man.

"Every portrait is nothing but the self-portrait of the author, the model being only an occasion, the accident" (from The Portrait of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde). It just so happens to be the same statement made by August Sander, the German photographer who has been most closely juxtaposed with Arbus for the way he shoots his subjects. In fact, one could easily hide some of Sander's photos among Arbus's and no one would notice. Never in anyone like Arbus is every portrait primarily a projection of her obsessions. Let us choose another famous photo, "Identical twins." It is the cover of the Aperture monograph devoted to Arbus. The twins differ only in expression. One is smiling, the other is not. Close contact between them makes them look like Siamese twins. To discover the true extent of the obsession with the disturbing theme of doubles, we must go back in time, from 1967, the year of the photo, to 1950, when Arbus photographed her daughter Doon in a double exposure in which she portrayed her simultaneously sad and cheerful. The obsession with doubles follows Arbus throughout her life. The twins "reappear" in Kubrick's The Shining, an old friend of Diane's. They are not, as many believe, just a tribute to the late photographer, but the best way to render the materialization of an obsession; the circle, once again, is complete "the full circle" precisely. Recall also that also in The Shining one of the most chilling scenes is that of the dead suicide in the bathtub, now partially decomposed, who seduces the protagonist. This is exactly the condition in which they found Arbus, in the bathtub, her body now strewn with the greenish stains of postmortem decomposition.

Arbus' biography is the basis for the plot of the 2006 film Fur - An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, directed by director Steven Shainberg, with Arbus played by Nicole Kidman, based on Patricia Bosworth's novel Diane Arbus: A Biography. The (fictional) story aims to show how Diane came to appreciate the world of diversity, gradually coming into contact and attunement with the world of freaks.


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