Unlike most people, who “go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience,” the “freaks” that interested Diane Arbus “were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They're aristocrats.” 1 Although this is how Arbus explained her attraction to carnival entertainers, we might imagine her using similar language to describe people of unusually large or small stature, nudists, those with developmental disabilities, drag performers, and many others who appear regularly in her portraits.

Arbus typically gave her subjects the opportunity to present themselves as they saw fit. Starting in 1962, she used medium-format cameras that were held at the waist—she looked down into the viewfinder so nothing came between her face and that of her subject. The intimacy of this kind of photographic encounter could inform the confidence and self-possession we see in figures like the poised Naked man being a woman, N.Y.C., 1968 or Burlesque comedienne in her dressing room, Atlantic City, N.J., 1963. On other occasions, Arbus seems to reveal a precariousness hidden beneath the surface of life in the cultural mainstream. Her images of those who wield social power or simply appear to be secure, like the patriotic Boy with a straw hat waiting to march in a pro-war parade, N.Y.C., 1967, are often subtly disquieting.

Arbus’s interest in the experiences of people across the social spectrum may have emerged from her own childhood. She grew up in a wealthy family, and felt shielded from the effects of the Great Depression. This experience of privilege was distressing: “it was like being a princess in some loathsome movie…and the kingdom was so humiliating.” 2 Perhaps because Arbus believed that she had not been sufficiently tested by adversity, she sought it out in the world around her. This personal investment in her chosen subject matter, however, did not lead Arbus to editorialize or make judgements. She typically avoided cropping her photographs for emphasis, and instead printed the entire negative, a choice registered by irregular black borders surrounding the image. “For me the subject of the picture is always more important than the picture,” she said. “And more complicated.” 3

One of Arbus’s creative touchstones was August Sander, who produced hundreds of photographic portraits documenting the citizens—and the social structure—of Weimar Germany. Arbus drew on the visual language of Sander’s frank and carefully composed images, whose subjects forcefully inhabit their place in society. Sander often highlighted some sign of the sitter’s vocation, like a bricklayer’s materials or a potter’s wheel, suggesting that identity is a social fact that can be made clear by an individual’s self-presentation. Arbus’s photographs seem more ambiguous, and are extraordinarily sensitive to what she called “the gap between intention and effect”: the distinction between what we try to communicate about ourselves and what is perceived by others. 4

Although Arbus was skeptical of popular praise and felt ambivalent about displaying her work, she came to occupy a central position in the art world of the late 1960s. This was partly thanks to the support of John Szarkowski, then the director of MoMA’s Department of Photography, who featured her alongside Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand in the influential 1967 exhibition New Documents. Szarkowski’s description of the show’s contents could serve as an account of Arbus’s project in particular: “a new generation of photographers has redirected the documentary approach toward more personal ends…. Their work betrays a sympathy—almost an affection—for the imperfections and frailties of society. They like the real world, in spite of its terrors, as the source of all wonder and fascination and value.” 5

In 1971, Arbus took her own life. Her photographs, however, continue to exert a powerful influence. For decades, artists like Nan Goldin, Judith Joy Ross, and Deana Lawson have been nourished by Arbus’s restless attraction to the unfamiliar and her refusal to offer judgement or easy answers. As Arbus herself famously put it, “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.” 6

Benjamin Clifford, 12-Month Intern, The Robert B. Menschel Department of Photography

The research for this text was supported by a generous grant from The Modern Women's Fund.

  1. Diane Arbus, Diane Arbus (Millerton: Aperture, 1972), 3.

  2. Diane Arbus, radio interview with Studs Terkel, 1968. Excerpted in Elisabeth Sussman and Doon Arbus, “A Chronology,” in Diane Arbus: Revelations (New York: Random House, 2003), 124.

  3. Arbus, Diane Arbus, 15.

  4. Ibid., 2.

  5. Wall label, New Documents, The Museum of Modern Art, New York City.

  6. Diane Arbus, “Five Photographs by Diane Arbus,” Artforum IX no. 9 (May 1971): 64.

Wikipedia entry
Diane Arbus (; née Nemerov; March 14, 1923 – July 26, 1971) was an American photographer. She photographed a wide range of subjects including strippers, carnival performers, nudists, people with dwarfism, children, mothers, couples, elderly people, and middle-class families. She photographed her subjects in familiar settings: their homes, on the street, in the workplace, in the park. "She is noted for expanding notions of acceptable subject matter and violates canons of the appropriate distance between photographer and subject. By befriending, not objectifying her subjects, she was able to capture in her work a rare psychological intensity." In his 2003 New York Times Magazine article, "Arbus Reconsidered", Arthur Lubow states, "She was fascinated by people who were visibly creating their own identities—cross-dressers, nudists, sideshow performers, tattooed men, the nouveaux riches, the movie-star fans—and by those who were trapped in a uniform that no longer provided any security or comfort." Michael Kimmelman writes in his review of the exhibition Diane Arbus Revelations, that her work "transformed the art of photography (Arbus is everywhere, for better and worse, in the work of artists today who make photographs)". Arbus's imagery helped to normalize marginalized groups and highlight the importance of proper representation of all people. In her lifetime she achieved some recognition and renown with the publication, beginning in 1960, of photographs in such magazines as Esquire, Harper's Bazaar, London's Sunday Times Magazine, and Artforum. In 1963 the Guggenheim Foundation awarded Arbus a fellowship for her proposal entitled, "American Rites, Manners and Customs". She was awarded a renewal of her fellowship in 1966. John Szarkowski, the director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City from 1962 to 1991, championed her work and included it in his 1967 exhibit New Documents along with the work of Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand. Her photographs were also included in a number of other major group shows.: 86  In 1972, a year after her suicide, Arbus became the first photographer to be included in the Venice Biennale: 51–52  where her photographs were "the overwhelming sensation of the American Pavilion" and "extremely powerful and very strange". The first major retrospective of Arbus' work was held in 1972 at MoMA, organized by Szarkowski. The retrospective garnered the highest attendance of any exhibition in MoMA's history to date. Millions viewed traveling exhibitions of her work from 1972 to 1979. The book accompanying the exhibition, Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph, edited by Doon Arbus and Marvin Israel and first published in 1972, has never been out of print.
Information from Wikipedia, made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License
Getty record
Born into a prominent New York Jewish family; her brother was poet Howard Nemerov. She worked with her husband on fashion photography. Later she separated from him and began her own career. Arbus' best known work investigates societies' frailties in portraits of outsiders, notably circus freaks, the mentally handicapped, transvestites, and nudists. She is noted for expanding notions of acceptable subject matter and violates canons of the appropriate distance between photographer and subject. By befriending, not objectifying her subjects, she was able to capture in her work a rare psychological intensity. She was troubled by depression throughout her life and committed suicide in 1971.
Artist, Photographer
Diane Arbus, Diane Nemerov Arbus, Diane Nemerov, Diane née Nemerov
Information from Getty’s Union List of Artist Names ® (ULAN), made available under the ODC Attribution License


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