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Diane Arbus

(1923—1971) American photographer


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(1923–71).

Photographer. She specialized in images of people whose inner lives seem rawly exposed, yet ultimately mysterious. While ordinary people sometimes appear outlandish, marginal or disabled figures are shown to share our humanity. Like Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, and other social landscape photographers prominent in the 1960s, she drew attention to the boundaries of normal human experience. Her work also notes the instability of representation, social forms, and objective meaning. Diane Nemerov, sister of poet Howard Nemerov, was born in New York and educated at the progressive Ethical Culture and Fieldston Schools, where she demonstrated a talent for painting. At eighteen, she married photographer Allan Arbus, with whom she worked in a successful fashion photography business. (They separated in 1959 and divorced ten years later.) Seeking by the mid-1950s to expand her artistic options, Arbus studied briefly at Alexey Brodovitch's Design Laboratory before working with Lisette Model for two years. Soon, following Model's lead, she was photographing eccentric subjects such as nudists, seedy entertainers, transvestites, twins, and deformed individuals. She also became particularly interested in recording people at parades, festivals, and other public rituals. In the 1960s her photo-essays were widely published in Esquire, the New York Times Magazine, and other leading periodicals. By the early 1960s Arbus had intensified her vision by regularly using a square-format camera in place of her previous 35 mm model. This camera registered more detail and provided a field well suited to her interest in composing around a centrally placed subject. Arbus generally did not capture individuals unaware but rather convinced them to pose for her. Thus, most of them are looking at her (and at the viewer). That they seem, as in family snapshots, to be willingly revealing themselves gives even the oddest of her subjects a strange intimacy. Arbus often took notes about her subjects and sometimes wrote skillfully composed captions to accompany her published photographs. Besides Model, important influences on her work include Richard Avedon, Robert Frank, Weegee, Brassaï, and August Sander. In turn, her idiosyncratic sensibility and its expression in photographs revealing the unexpected have reverberated widely. As a cultural celebrity, she was widely honored after her suicide in New York. The following year, Aperture published a monograph commemorating her work, the Museum of Modern Art mounted a large retrospective (which subsequently traveled the country for three years), and her one-person show at the 1972 Venice Biennale was the first given to an American photographer.

Subjects: Art.


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