In the Eye of the Beholder: Diane Arbus

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The Postmodernism era was a time of questioning ideologies of the modernism era. Artists were looking outside the box, questioning purpose and finding new meanings. Diane Arbus was a great contributor to Postmodernism photography. While she took many photographs of both famous and non-famous people, she had a way of making the photos look non-conventional. Diane’s most famous photography work was with people who were considered different and freakish. She gave them a voice, making them feel less flawed and gave them dignity. Diane’s photography was a new voice of an old secret.

Diane Nemerov was born on March 14, 1923 in New York. Her wealthy family owned Russeks Department store on Fifth Avenue. She was the middle child of 3 children, but was closest to her older brother, Howard. In Diane’s younger years, her parents were overcautious of what her and her siblings were exposed to. Diane was quoted saying, “I grew up feeling immune and exempt from circumstance. One of the things I suffered from was that I never felt adversity. I was confirmed in a sense of unreality” (Oppenheimer). Diane and her siblings life in a large Park Avenue apartment was a guarded nest with maids, cooks and chauffeurs. Diane inferred that peculiar people in Central Park enjoyed a life that was distant from hers and she hungered for a similar existence. Being immune from the hardships of life really bothered Diane and she felt it was rather spurious.

Diane did not regard her mother in the best light. She felt image was too important to her and she was rather fake. Her mother was known to have anxiety and depression issues. As a child Diane would try to keep her mother from going into depression by sitting by her side and consoling her without success. Later in life Diane would suffer from similar inherited traits. In Diane’s younger years she was often known as an original. She was shy, yet intelligent and artistic. From seventh to twelfth grade, Diane attended school at the Fieldstone School in the Bronx and was attracted to myths and public spectacle. She spent much of her time at school painting, working with clay, and sketching. Diane and her friends began exploring New York by themselves without adult consent. Riding on the subway, they would often get off in unfamiliar areas of Brooklyn or the Bronx to observe and get to know diverse people. For Diane’s high school yearbook quote, she chose a misquoted E.A. Robinson’s poem and that said “Diane Nemerov.

To shake the tree of life itself and bring down fruits unheard of” (Lubow). This was the beginning of Diane’s fascination with unusual, unique people. At 13 years old, Diane met Allen Arbus, who worked at her parents store in advertising. The two married when Diane turned 18 in 1941, with her parents begrudging support. Allen studied photography in the New Jersey Signal Corps. The couple made their living doing fashion photography, starting with Diane’s parent’s department store. Allen was the photographer and Diane was the art director, getting the models ready and styled for the photoshoot. The couple had two daughters, Doon and Amy. Diane’s husband took some photography courses in Burma and in his absence Diane studied photography under Berenice Abbott, a photographer in 1950’s. Diane began doing photography by herself and eventually separated from Allen in 1959. Diane enrolled in a class that Lisette Model, a European photographer, was teaching at the New York School.

Encouraged by Model, Diane began to explore her own unique type of photography. Diane had a way of seeing beauty in things that weren’t normal. In the beginning of the 1960’s Diane photographed both famous and non-famous people for magazines such as Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar. She invested a lot of time in her subjects and went to their homes, work, and conversed with them until they felt comfortable and dropped their pretenses. Diane felt the person themselves was more meaningful than her photo and it was evident in her photographs. One of the editors at Esquire, Harold Hayes, was quoted saying “In nearly every case, her subject would be framed by the most natural, obvious setting...and posed facing straight-eyed and unblinking toward the center of her camera lens, always with the same curious expression, as though seeking from the beholder some special understanding” (Oppenheimer).  

Diane’s passion lead her to explore photography of the unusual. People the public would look away from or ignore attracted Diane. Diane’s daughter explained “She was determined to reveal what others had been taught to turn their backs on. Or you might say she wanted to find the humanity in people that others shunned” (Kimmelman). Diane celebrated freakishness in her photographs. Some photos include: a picture of a boy in a park playing with a pretend hand grenade, midget friends in a living room, identical twins, a giant human in his home with his normal sized parents, photos of naked people at a nudist camp, and 100’s more unique photos. In contrast Diane would enjoy taking photos of normal people capturing a more merciless view of that person, such as an odd stare or an unusual facial expression. Diane frequented nudist camps, circuses, Hurbert’s Freak Museum, the Times Square, institutions for the mentally disabled, festivals, etc. and was captivated by the beautiful flaws of the unusual, even though she sometimes worried for her life.

In Diane’s own words “I do feel I have some slight corner on the quality of some things, I mean, it’s very subtle and a little embarrassing to me, but I really think there are things that nobody would see unless I photographed them” (Creative Arts Television). Ironically, Diane frequented many places from which she was protected as a child and embraced the risky lives of the unknown and unseen. In 1962 Diane met John Szarkowski, the new curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art. He had a more romantic, post modernism view of photography than the prior curator, Edward Steichen. In 1967 Szarkowski entered Diane’s photographs in the Movement’s Manifesto/Exhibition, New Documents show. This show more than any other show established Diane’s reputation for unusual, artistic photography. While working for Harper's Bazaar, Diane took photos of Gloria Vanderbilt’s son. Diane and Gloria were casual friends, so Diane asked if she could take pictures of her baby. Diane came to their home to visit on and off for 3 weeks, talking and taking photos and became quite enamored with the baby.

This photo is now quite famous because it was the baby picture of Anderson Cooper from CNN. It is said the photo hangs in Mr. Cooper’s home still today. Diane was diagnosed with hepatitis and struggled with depression. She saw a therapist on and off for the last few years of her life. In her later sessions it was revealed that she had a sexual relationship with her brother, Howard that started in her adolescence and continued through her adult life. On July 26, 1971, in her New York City home, Diane killed herself by taking an overdose of barbiturates and slashing her wrists in the bathtub. She was just 48 years old. After Diane’s death, she became the first American Photographer to be displayed in an exhibit at the Venice Biennale in Italy. The exhibit displayed 10 of Diane’s blown up photos, depicting people comfortable with their abnormalities. It was said that Diane felt the people in her photos were born with traumatic characteristics and didn’t have to worry about something bad happening, because it already had and they were free.

Diane Arbus was not just a talented photographer, she took photos to get to know the person and tell a unique story about each one. She gave a voice to America’s freaks and shared it with the world. Sadly, Diane didn’t live to see all of her success. She had become an icon in the history of Photography’s postmodernism era. Diane left behind an important message through her photos, showing that it is important to embrace and celebrate the gift of life's oddities.


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In the Eye of the Beholder: Diane Arbus. (2021, Mar 22). Retrieved July 13, 2024 , from

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