The Portrait of An Art Revolution: Diane Arbus

The most impressive feature of photography is connected with the relation between a world that can fit in a lens and the creator of the world behind the lens. There is no doubt that before photography was invented, people’s life of perception was limited to their ability to see. After the invention of photography, it has evolved to the present day as a form of perception beyond seeing. Providing the atmosphere of the outer world, mankind has become a fundamental figure of the inner world.


Photography is the branch of art that gives a visual perception through light tricks to reality. The photographers, on the other hand, who are the creators of this reality have the ability to exhibit various lives full of secrets. One of them who, contrary to the taboos of the American society, reflected the nature of humanity most sincerely and intrigued with her mysterious suicide was Diane Arbus.

(Credit: Diane Arbus)


Diane Arbus was one of the personages that affected the vision of society. She was an American photographer whose aim was to normalize marginalized groups in order to emphasize the significance of accurate portrayal of all communities. She conveyed the imperfectness of secular life in the consciousness of American society. Her subjects were mainly from every walk of life as mothers, children, carnival performers, couples, nudists, elderly people, strippers, and people with disabilities. Apart from being an avant-garde photographer, she is also famous for defying the proper criterion gap between the photographer and the subject. She was able to capture a remarkable relational intensity in her vision by befriending people who were able to show their self-identity despite the pressure of cultural norms.


Personal Life and Career


Diane Arbus, who lived between 1923 and 1971, was one of the most influential and pioneering photographers of the twentieth century. In today’s world, Arbus, who once said that her photographs aimed to explore ‘‘the space between who someone is and who they think they are,’’ has become America’s best-known and most contentious photographer. However, her artistic contributions of the unsettling strangeness that rises to the surface from her photographs have been overshadowed by her suicide. Until recently, many aspects of Arbus’ life and career were shrouded in secrecy.


She was born in a wealthy Jewish family. Her father was a Russian immigrant whose name was David Nemerov and her mother, Gertrude, was the daughter of the owners of Russek Fur Shop. Notwithstanding that, growing up in a wealthy household was quite difficult. The distance among the family members made her feel unloved. Within her childhood period, she was aware that she had a different perspective towards the way of living. Her father encouraged her to become a painter but when Diane was fourteen, she met Allan Arbus, who worked in her father’s store. They fell in love with each other. Although Diane’s parents disapproved of her relationship, the relationship continued.

(Credit: Diane Arbus and Allan Arbus in 1950)


Diane abandoned painting and education, declaring that her only dream was to marry Allan. “I despised drawing and left immediately after high school when I was always told how great I was,” she admitted. It is known that during that time Diane had spent time with many important photographers such as Berenice Abbott, Mathew Brady, Paul Strand, and Bill Brandt. Owing to their interests in photography, the couple worked as fashion photographers. Even though they hated being involved in the field of fashion photography, they worked with prestigious magazines like Vogue, Glamour, and Seventeen. Allan, Diane’s husband, was also a photographer in World War 2. After the war, the couple commenced an occupational photography business called Diane & Allan Arbus. However, due to the controversial marriage, they got divorced, in 1969, right before she resigned from her art directorship and became a portrait and street photographer. In the 1960s, Diane achieved recognition with her "strange" photos published in Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar, as well as magazines such as Sunday Times and Artforum. Her works began to be thought as “extremely powerful and very strange”.

(Credit: Diane Arbus (American, 1923-1971)

The New Life Harper’s Bazaar (February, 1968)


According to the articles, Diane was quite passionate about her subjects. The exhibition of her novels, cameras, letters, and notebooks gives a strong sense of her personality; whimsical, smart, and insatiably curious. She was following people into their houses in order to find secretive and depressing photographs, spending hours talking to them and trying to capture the reality behind the mask they wore in public. It is crucial to note that those people, who entered her frame were seen as "freaks" by American society. Hence, after a while, Diane Arbus was called “freak photographer”. Not to mention the fact that the “freaks” in her photographs exhibited their natural state in collaboration with her by revealing the impression that that was the basis of their existence rather than poses.

(Credit: Three Female Impersonators, N.Y.C., a photograph by Diane Arbus on gelatin silver print from 1962.)


Tragic End


Diane was lost in her own world while being in the most prosperous and famous time of her life, yet she always managed to conceal her feelings during her career. In a way, she could not be peaceful because of the feelings that she was trapped in. Diane could not reveal her real thoughts and feelings. That is why she felt obliged to carry that burden until the end of her breath.

(Credit: Woman Carrying a Child in Central Park, N.Y.C., 1956, by Diane Arbus)


Arbus committed suicide in 1971, (at the age of 48) by overdosing on sleeping pills and slitting her wrists. In one of her notebooks, there was a note that says “The last supper of July 26th.” One of her students conveyed the following impression of her last days by saying that she had sharp eyes buried deep in her face. Those piercing eyes that did not miss anything. The artist’s life, which was widely discussed after her death, was adapted for the big screen in 2006 under the title Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus. Diane’s works were exhibited by the Museum of Modern Art, which was the most visited exhibition during its time.


I must begin at whatever pace is possible, to work on the book of my own that i vaguely keep assuming lies at the end of the rainbow. It is after all my rainbow and if I don’t do it no one else will…Survival is the secret so you really can’t afford to doubt yourself for long because you are all you’ve got. The only thing to do is to go the limit with it. Exceed.

-Diane Arbus






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