Diane Arbus photographer, was born March 14, 1923 in Manhattan and passed July 26, 1971 in
New York city at only 48 years old. She is considered one of Americas’ great photographic artists.
She was born to the wealthy Jewish family who owned the fashionable fifth avenue department store, Russeks. Dianes’ father David Nemerov, was constantly busy with running the family business. Her mother Gertrude Russek Nemerov, was consumed with the social life in New York and was diagnosed with clinical depression. They were not the picture of parenting. Diane, her brother Howard and sister Renee were raised by governesses and maids.
As Diane grew older she separated herself form her family.
Diane met her husband Allan Arbus at 14 while at school. Married at 18 years old, they had 2 daughters, Doom and Amy. Allan was a World War II photographer and started his civilian career as a photographer with Diane when they married. The pair were favourite fashion photographers of magazines like Seventeen, Harpers Bazaar and Esquire. Diane directed the shoots and Allan did the photography. Diane and Allan separated in 1959, but continued to remain friends and share a dark room until 1969, at which time they divorced and Allan moved to California to pursue a acting career. He gained notoriety for his role on the television series M.A.S.H. as Dr. Sidney Freedman. Allan made sure that Diane still had a dark room and they continued their friendship until her death.
In 1956 Diane had been encouraged by friends to pursue her own photography and she did. She became known for using a twin-lens reflex Rolleiflex camera due to the image size and the clarity. Diane also used a 2 1/4 Mamiyaflix camera. Living in New York, Diane would walk the streets looking for subjects to shoot. Many of her subjects were men wearing make up, freak show performers, street people and people with disabilities. Anyone who looked different or unusual, and many she befriended. She pushed the boundaries of what was called acceptable photography of the age. She is quoted “ I really believe there are things that nobody would see, unless I photograph them.” It is said that she photographed people different from herself, to make her feel less privileged from her sheltered upbringing.
Diane never made a good living from her art and in 1963 she was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship and this was renewed in 1966.
During the 1960’s she supported herself shooting documentary photos and magazine commissions. Diane also photographed famous people like Jane Mansfield, Ozzie and Harriet Neilson, Norman Mailer and Gloria Vanderbilt’s young son Anderson Cooper. There were many others as well. As her fame increased, her work with magazines diminished. Diane taught photography at Parson’s School of Design, the Cooper Union in New York, and Rhode Island School of Design.
In 1967 Diane had her first exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Along with two other artists, she was recognized as “a new generation of photography”.
Diane Arbus suffered with depression thoughtout her life. It is noted that she was struggling in a letter to her friend Carlotta Marshall, who she also photographed. Her ex-husband Allan also said Diane had episodes of violent mood swings. On July 27, 1971 Diane took barbiturates, got in the bath and cut both her wrists. Leaving a note saying “Last Supper”. Two days later her friend Marvin Israel discovered her. She was only 48 years old. To think what she could have achieved. Depression seems almost be a common thread among some artists of all genres - music, painting, acting and photography.
There have been ongoing struggles with Dianes’ estate, as she had no will. There has been much controversy about the use of her photographic works. Her daughter Doon has tried to maintain control over her work to protect her legacy.
Since her death there have been many exhibitions of her work. Several books have also been written, one by Doon and friend Marvin Israel. There is a film loosely based on her life titled “Fur”. This movie was considered a “Fairytale”. In 2007 the Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased 20 of Arbus’ photographs, apparently worth millions. Also the MET received archives of her work including hundreds of negatives, early and unique photographs, prints and 7500 rolls of film, as a gift from her estate. It is wonderful that Diane Arbus’ work will be protected and cared for future generations.
There are so many articles online about Diane. Her daughter Doon made a documentary film about her in 1972, a year after her passing. You can find this on Youtube.
Keep learning, keep well-
Youtube: Masters of Photography : Diane Arbus