Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus

American Photographer

Born: March 14, 1923 - New York City, New York
Died: July 26, 1971 - New York City, New York
"They are the proof that something was there and no longer is. Like a stain. And the stillness of them is boggling. You can turn away but when you come back they'll still be there looking at you."
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Diane Arbus Signature
"Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot... There's a quality of legend about freaks. Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. Most people go through life dreading they'll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They've already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats."
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Diane Arbus Signature
"Nothing is ever as the same as they said it was. It's what I've never seen before that I recognize."
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Diane Arbus Signature
"A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know."
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Diane Arbus Signature
"What's left after what one isn't is taken away is what one is."
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Diane Arbus Signature
"I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn't photograph them."
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Diane Arbus Signature
"When you try very hard to do something by the time you can do it is easy to do, so effort is maybe a kind of prayer."
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Diane Arbus Signature
"My favorite thing to do is to go where I've never been."
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Diane Arbus Signature
"The more specific you are, the more general it'll be."
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Diane Arbus Signature
"Everybody has that thing, they need to look one way, but they come out looking another way, and that's what people observe. You see someone on the street and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw. Our whole guise is like giving a guise to the world to think of us in a certain way, but there's a point between what you want people to know about you and what you can't help people knowing about you. And that has to do with what I've always called the gap between intention and effect."
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Diane Arbus Signature
"I remember one summer I worked a lot in Washington Square Park. It must have been about 1966. The park was divided. It has these walks, sort of like a sunburst, and there were these territories staked out. There were young hippie junkies down one row. There were lesbians down another, really tough amazingly hard-core lesbians. And in the middle were winos. They were like the first echelon and the girls who came from the Bronx to become hippies would have to sleep with the winos to get to sit on the other part with the junkie hippies.. I was very keen to get close to them, so I had to ask to photograph them."
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Diane Arbus Signature

Summary of Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus is an American photographer known for her hand-held black and white images of marginalized people such as midgets, circus freaks, giants, gender non-conforming people, as well as more normalized subjects of suburban families, celebrities, and nudists. Arbus' work can be understood as bizarre, fantastical, and psychologically complex all at once - either way, she took documentary photography a step further. One might feel as though they are violating a social contract with the subject for it often evokes a sense of "othering" through the intense gaze her photography offers. Through Arbus, humans (even the most mundane and neutral) become visual spectacles. Arbus became internationally known for her provocative imagery, and remains one of the most unique Post-Modern American photographers. Although she is often criticized for objectifying her subjects, the power of her images remains.


  • Arbus employed the techniques of documentary or photojournalistic photography to represent real life subjects in their natural environments. However, she made the resulting works uniquely her own, as her personal journey was always embedded in the imagery she photographed. There is a multiplicity of the subject, for you can't think of the image without thinking of the set of qualities that made the image possible; which is to say, it is difficult to imagine the photograph taking place without the thought of Arbus present.
  • Arbus found intrigue and conjured beauty in unlikely subjects, and made remarkable portraits of people that were not often deemed "fit" to be in front of the lens of a camera. She sought out unique characters on the fringes of society for her work, and said to this, "I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn't photograph them." This went a long way from the art that is often thought to be reserved only for the aesthetically pleasing, as opposed to showing the "real" or "true" world.
  • The idea of personal identity as socially constructed is one that Arbus came back to, whether it be performers, women and men wearing makeup, or a literal mask obstructing one's face. Critics have speculated that the choices in her subjects were a reflection of her own identity issues, for she said that the only thing she suffered from as a child was never having felt adversity. This evolved into a longing for things that money couldn't buy such as experiences in the underground social world. She is often praised for her sympathy for these subjects, a quality which is not immediately understood through the images themselves, but through her writing and the testimonies of the men and women she portrayed.

Biography of Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus Photo

Diane Nemerov grew up in New York City in a wealthy Jewish family who owned a successful fur company named Russeks. She was the second of three children who all grew-up to be creatives. (Howard, the eldest, grew up to be a Pulitzer Prize winning poet and the younger, Renee became an artist). Raised in a series of lavish homes in Upper East Side of New York City, her childhood consisted of maids and governesses helping raise her and her siblings. Diane's mother, Gertrude, struggled with bouts of depression preventing her from intellectually supporting Diane while her father, David, stayed busy with work. The rest of her life, she would try separating herself from her family and upbringing. Many have thought that she did this through her work, as an extension of her personal suffering, for she felt oppressed in her own community and felt akin to her subjects as a social outcast.

Progression of Art


42nd Street movie theater audience, N.Y.C. 1958

Photographing movie theaters and audiences kicked-off Arbus's initial fascination with photography. In this early photo, Arbus captures a number of hunched-over bodies siting underneath a flared projector light. This photograph reveals the complicated social process of taking pictures and Arbus's humble beginnings as a timorous photographer. The grainy film constructs a dreamlike image of minute dots accentuating the dusty light. Arbus admired the textured look, "I'd be fascinated by what the grain did because it would make a kind of tapestry of all these little dots and everything would be translated into this medium of dots..." The grainy print attests to her amateur technical skills that she improved with the help of Allan Arbus. The photo flips the script, capturing the gaze of the audience lost in a collective stare towards the movie screen. As Arbus wrote "It always seemed to me that photography tends to deal with facts whereas film tends to deal with fiction."

She started her photography career shy and avoiding actual human interaction and chose pre-constructed scenes like wax museums or unbeknownst audiences such as this image. She would often wait for the opportune moment in parks and city sidewalks, often photographing people from behind or without their consent or knowledge. She obliged the grip of the photographic excellence as the search for the perfect moment became dire. She gave up shooting movie theaters when she changed from her 35mm camera to a more professional, albeit bulkier, medium format camera. Shortly after this image was taken she started using a 2 ? inch twin-lens reflex Rolleiflex, then later a Mamiya C33, which are harder to use with discretion. The medium format camera produces a square negative, which came to be one of Arbus' compositional signatures. Shortly after this image was taken her distinctive style began to take shape as she took more risks and found out how to relate to people she sought to capture.

Gelatin silver print - Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco


Miss Venice Beach, Cal

Photographing as a spectator in a crowd of (mostly) male onlookers, Arbus successfully exposes the voyeuristic male gaze projected onto the contestants' bodies. Instead of exclusively focusing on the parading females in their bathing suits, she captures the audience as well as the women. Through framing, she transforms the subject of the image from the pageant itself, to the wider idea of pageantry following the theme of voyeurism in her work.

Arbus engages with the event with a critical lens into the otherwise superficial meaning of ceremonies that make up our everyday existence. Her portrayal of judgment requires of us to ask ourselves if there is any one true meaning of the conventions of physical female beauty. Arbus wrote, "It took about ten hours of interviews, sashaying, and performing what they called their talent and the poor girls looked so exhausted by the effort to be themselves that they continually made the fatal mistakes which were in fact themselves..."

Her photo crystallized the moral issues traditionally plaguing women in American society: objectification through the male gaze. This topic was addressed with both sexes by Arbus. Analysis of this photograph is similar to her portraits of drag queens, burlesque performers, strippers, cross dressers, and some would argue even the hyper-masculine body builders. What all of the images have in common, is the portrayal of the subjects within understanding of the man's point of view.

Gelatin Silver Print - Museum of Modern Art, New York City, New York

Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C (1962)

Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C

Instead of presenting the young boy as playful and angelic, this boy is captured in a tense moment of frustration and confusion. His wiry limbs and clenched teeth promote the idea of a young boy filled with rage and nerves. His right hand tightly clamps a toy grenade - that looks very real - while his left hand looks like a claw. Completely alone, the empty space exemplifies the boy's isolation from others. Balancing his edgy nature, Arbus carefully positioned him at a bend in the path where a tree acts as a visual line from his legs. The setting in Central Park adds an element of innocence aided by the idyllic-looking family in the background.

Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C is considered to be one of the most important and influential images of the 20th-century's art and post-modernist art theory. Nothing is medically wrong with the boy, but his momentary reaction to the event of being photographed has come to exemplify more than a portrait. The child embodies awkward tensions between childhood games, not-so-childlike violence, and greater sociopolitical turmoil that defined the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time when the county was at war. While her contact sheet shows her subject, Colin Wood, modeled in various "typical" child-like poses of smiling and hamming it up for the camera; she chose to print the most unusual shot of Wood.

This image is often criticized as being disturbing to viewers. Arbus sought to expose the underbelly of society, which is often overlooked or ignored. What becomes apparent is the more insistent, larger narrative of American sensibility, lost in the social upheavals of the 1960s. Critic Susan Sontag wrote about Arbus' aesthetic insensibilities in her book, On Photography, which is a very influential piece of critique questioning the legitimacy of photography as an art form, written in 1977. She categorized Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C, among Arbus' work as a whole, as picturing people who are "pathetic, pitiable, as well as repulsive." This image remains an icon despite Sontag's scathing review, and has continued to grow in fame as the visual impact of the image is haunting and timeless.

Gelatin Silver Print - The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York City, New York


Puerto Rican woman with a beauty mark

In this tightly cropped portrait of a middle-aged woman, Arbus alludes to the highly nuanced idea that identity is constructed. The subject has thick dark hair contained by a sheer headscarf; her heavy eye makeup and lipstick accentuate her features, as she stares just beyond the camera lens, with a half-cocked grimace. Despite her efforts to beautify herself, her lip-liner is drawn above her lip line, which is a stylistic choice sometimes employed by Puerto Rican women, yet looks unintentional in this image. The closeness of Arbus's focus allows the viewer to enter the world of minute facial expression that conveys a very particular emotion caught in time.

Arbus's fixation on personal presentation requires us to explore the complicated relationship between personal vanity. She stated, "You see someone on the street and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw... there's a point between what you want people to know about you and what you can't help people knowing about you. And that has to do with what I've always called the gap between intention and effect." Here, Arbus is speaking to the idea of ones perceived self vs. the true self. And perhaps, she is trying to say, there is no authentic self; we are merely constantly performing and showcasing the way we desire to be perceived.

Gelatin Silver Print - J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California


A family on their lawn one Sunday in Westchester, N.Y. 1968

In what many critics believe to be the beginning of the last phase of Arbus's work, this picture lampoons the post-WWII experience of suburban lawns, weekend leisure, and the nuclear family experience. A wife and husband recline on their chaise lounges in their swimsuits separated by the outdoor table that also serves to separate them metaphorically. Their son plays in the background between his parents, acting as a symbolic bridge between the husband and wife. Donning an inquisitive look directed at Arbus, the wife looks comfortable - possibly posing for the camera. The husband tries blocking the sun and possibly Arbus's camera from his sights. Their joint reaction of despair and frustration paired with a sense of emptiness and sterility found in the vast, empty lawn signals family strife.

This photograph is of Nat and June Tarnapol, a successful agent and publisher in the pop music business and his well-coiffed wife. When Arbus stopped June in a bookstore to ask her to sit for a photograph, it was because she was impeccably dressed. Arbus wrote, "...she suggested I wait until warm weather so I can do it [photograph] around the pool!" Yet, Arbus did not want to recreate an idyllic family portrait. Once photographing the wealthy family at their home in the New York suburbs, Arbus spent almost eight hours shooting the family. Her truth-by-exhaustion technique made her ultimate photo far more interesting. It is a powerful statement confirming that traditional family roles can be stifling. Her cathartic uncovering of this sense gave rise to a bold photographic narrative that became the emblematic and diarist project detailing Arbus's own life and views. By understanding this image further, one understands how the artist's personal biography can affect the work they seek to produce, which is a theme consistent in Modern and Post-Modern Art.

Gelatin Silver Photograph - Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, California


A naked man being a woman, N.Y.C

This photograph is an excellent example of how Arbus could personify both type and individual identity in the same body. Arbus gained entry into intimate spaces like the bedroom of the transgendered individual pictured here, which was something Arbus was intent and successful at doing. The curtains are pulled back, serving at once to be a theatrical element and to reveal the truth about his identity. With his genitals pulled back between his thighs, the subject is posed in traditional contrapposto, drawing a comparison to classical sculpture and its adherence to idealized form and beauty akin to Michelangelo's David. The subject wears a look of pride, modeled with feminine makeup alluding to the female identity to which he aspires. Through the photo, one can see sexuality and subjectivity of identity is more varied and fluid than the norms had previously allowed.

The photo is a continued dialog of a sequence of contact sheets labeled "Catherine Bruce" and simultaneously "Bruce Catherine" conveying a binary identity. Arbus opens a Pandora's box of sexual identity issues and conventions addressed in visual form. By capturing "Bruce Catherine" appearing as an idealized human and feminine form, Arbus draws the comparison for us to understand a new definition of love and beauty through classical references. Her photo reflected on a new age of perceived comfort within society despite one's supposed otherness through the subject's confident body language and defiant gaze, which at the time this photo was taken was unusual and extraordinary. At the same time, the subject poses nude in his disheveled home, protected from his outward public life, which one can only assume is much different than his performative feminized identity that we see here channeled through Arbus.

Gelatin Silver Print - Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, California

A Jewish Giant at home with his parents, in the Bronx, N.Y. (1970)

A Jewish Giant at home with his parents, in the Bronx, N.Y.

This photograph is an emotional tour of force where Arbus' direct style of photography combined with her devotion to represent the underrepresented. Eddie Carmel, standing well over seven feet tall, is unkempt and unshaved with his wrinkled shirt and jeans, standing next to his parents only with the help of a cane. His father, whose well-fitted suit and his hand neatly situated in his pocket acts as though he were posing for a classic family portrait. Carmel looms over his parents, whose gaunt stare upwards exemplifies a vastness felt by their physical difference. A viewer may not infer that this is a family photo without the help of the title. Yet, at the very core of Arbus' photo is a picture of a mother and father with their child in a typical family home.

Arbus met Carmel at Hubert's Dime Museum and later visited his family home in 1970. The living room is standard for the time period: matching patterned drapes, comfortable furniture, and quaint decorations. The unique vignette around this image stands out, for it was possibly not an intentional choice, but a necessary one due to light falloff. The subjects are standing near the wall on the opposite side of the room from Arbus, and one can imagine the artist set up behind the armchair in the foreground with her widest lens to capture the whole scene. Light falloff happens when the light cannot fully reach the lens, and in this case the vignette offers a voyeuristic feel to the image, enhancing the taboo nature of this particular domestic scene. The image is the only one from the contact sheet where Carmel stands apart from his parents. This is a deliberate choice in editing, intended to highlight what Arbus believed to be every mothers' nightmare. She said of this image, "You know how every mother has nightmares when she's pregnant that her baby will be born a monster? I think I got that in the mother's face as she glares up at Eddie, thinking, Oh my God, no." Born into abnormalities, Carmel lived a life as a sideshow attraction at the carnival since job prospects could not see past his physical stature. Arbus unearthed the hidden and dark chaos buried below one of life's biggest gambles: birthing the unintentionally strange.

Gelatin Silver Print - Museum of Modern Art, New York City, New York


Untitled (7)

This somber and mysterious photo shows severely handicapped patients walking and stumbling along dressed in their Halloween masks. During their outdoor walk under grey skies and moonlight, Arbus makes a strong use of the camera's flash. The scene revealed goes a level beyond the usual photos of Arbus's consenting subjects living in the outside world. These patients are supposed to be in a safer place, and that location casts them, and the process of photographing them, in a different light. In addition, the scene is reminiscent of James Ensor's ghastly portrayals of the rich and corrupt, an association that adds to the complexity of interpreting this series of photographs.

Arbus spent several years trying to gain access into the New Jersey institution before finally gaining permission in 1969. There is little doubt that this series of pictures taken at the end of her life are among her most controversial for many reasons. These images were published posthumously by the approval of her daughter Doon (who is in control of her estate) and are ethically challenging since the subjects didn't give the same sorts of permissions that her other subjects did. One can only assume that the institution gave Arbus permission, although there is no formal record of this. Arbus kept extensive records of her releases and felt that it was very important to get permission from her subjects to engage with her and her work. To put these images within context of her oeuvre would mean that these mentally disabled subjects are "freaks" and among the "underbelly of society" which adds an exploitative complexity that many in the art world reject as part of her main objective as an artist. Some institutions have refused to exhibit this work. Some argue that these images were not intended to be part of her larger body of work based on the grounds that they were not numbered nor printed in exhibition ready quality (as usually done by Arbus) but only as proof prints. Though Arbus normally used descriptive titles for each of her photographs that she desired to be seen, after her death, Doon Arbus titled the series of photographs "Untitled."

Gelatin Silver Print - Collection of Carla Emil and Rich Silverstein

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Influences and Connections

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    Allan Arbus
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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Diane Arbus Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 21 Jan 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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