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Diane Arbus

American Photographer

Diane Arbus Photo

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."

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.

Key Ideas

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.
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.

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