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                  Diane Arbus


                             By Eugene Struthers

Diane Arbus


14 March 1923 - 26 July 1971.


Diane Arbus (Birth name Diane Nemerov) was born in New York City into a wealthy Jewish family. Her father David Nemerov was a hard-working Russian immigrant, her mother Gertrude was the daughter of the owners of Russek's Fur store. Her father oversaw the stores transformation into a department store. Raised with her two siblings on Central Park West and Park Avenue. New York was her lifelong home and the primary source of her subjects and inspiration. It was a place she explored as a known territory and a foreign land, during the 1950's and 1960's. Diane's anthropology and contemporary portraits of people of the street, middle-class families, couples, children, carnival workers, nudists and strippers, eccentrics, zealots and celebrities - stood as an exploration and allegory of postwar America and the relationship between identity, appearance, illusion, reality, theatre and belief. Photography for Diane was a medium which intertwined facts. The interaction and self-conscious encounter between the photographer and subject played a pivotal role in showing and extracting the drama out of the pictures she took.


In 1941 she married her childhood sweetheart Allan Arbusto whom she had two daughters with. She first began taking pictures in the early 1940's and continued to so also on her own and with her husband. Whom she set up a fashion business with. She studied photography with Berenice Abbott in the 1940's (An American photographer best known for her black-and-white photography of New York City architecture and urban design in the early 1930's) and with Alexey Brodovitch in 1955 (A Russian Photographer, designer and instructor who was famous for his art direction of fashion magazines "Harper Bazaar" an American Fashion magazine, a style resource for the well-dressed woman, first published in 1867). Between 1956 -1958 Diane studied with Lisette Model (Elise Amelie Felicie Stern was am Austrian-born American photographer and a member of the New York Photo league ) and based most of her early works on Model's example. Lisette pushed her to explore the thematic interest in the unorthodoxy and onto mastering the conventional technical aspects of photography.


In 1960 Esquire magazine was the first to publish her work and this is where she assumed her distinctive look. She worked for Esquire and Harper Bazaar and other magazines. Diane had hundreds of photographs published, included in her work were personal projects which the public never saw, these included portraits and photographic essays which she accompanied with her own writing. She would spend hours with subjects, studying them, following them to their home, office, talking and listening to them, trying to catch them when they would drop their public appearance.


In 1962 Diane began to turn away from the 35mm camera favoured by most documentary photographers of her era. She sought to bring greater clarity into her images and have a more direct relationship with the people she was photographing. She started working with the square-format (2-1/4-inch twin lens reflex) camera and created portraits marked by a formal classical style which became recognised as distinctive features of her work. A child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park N.Y.C. 1962, a retired man and his wife at home in a nudist camp one morning N.J. 1963 are some examples of her work.


Her non-commercial work, for which she was awarded the Guggenheim fellowships in 1963 and 1966 for her project "American rites, Manners and Customs" orientated itself towards the unfamous - circus performers, identical twin girls, marginal dwarfism, a young Republican and a couple sitting on a bench.


She wrote, "I want to photograph the considerable ceremonies of our present because we tend while living here and now to perceive only what is random and barren and formless about it." "While we regret that the present is not like the past and despair of its ever becoming the future, its innumerable, inscrutable habits lie in wait for their meaning....... These are our symptoms and monuments. I want simply to save them, for what is ceremonious and curious and commonplace will be legendary.


"During her lifetime, her work only appeared in only a few group shows, her photographs generated popular and critical attention. The nature in which she approached the boldness of her subject matter, marked her photographic approach as revolutionary. She was a voyeur from the Upper West Side, a coddled depressive. a paradox of photography "a pseudo-familiarity with the horrible reinforces alienation, making one less able to react to reality.


"In the 1960's Diane taught photography at Parsons School of Design, the Rhode Island School of Design and Cooper Union, where she continued to take photographs consistent with her evolving vision.


In July 1971, at the age of 48, during a period of depression, she committed suicide (pills and razor blade). A year later MOMA held a retrospective of her work, it became the most attended solo photography exhibition in its history.


Diane's continues to captivate, intrigue and fascinate thirty years later. Her images are controversial for their time. They are innovative and implicit in their essential meaning. Her brilliance was to catch everybody unmasked, at the moment of transition between unconscious repose and practiced, social self-representation.


Diane Arbus was an icon who personified the period, customs, environment, character and unconventional brilliance of a romantic and tragic tortured artist of the 60's.


We honour her work and contribution to our photographic world.




A major important aspect to modern creatively promoted photography is its relation between reality and fiction. This balance between the two, gives reason to the fact, that photography is presented, manipulated, directed, contrived and staged. Its use merely as imagery is no longer used, it is now a well-developed and orchestrated stream of consciousness, a language all on its own. Each photograph has a rich and self-contained story. It has become a theatre of life, a lens of philosophical ideologies, a composition of erotic psychodramas, absurd scenes of two opposing and contrasting worlds.

Masters of photography - Diane Arbus (documentary, 1972)

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