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Diane Arbus: The Photographer of Provocative Images

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Employing the techniques of documentary or photojournalistic photography to represent real-life subjects, often those who lived on the fringes of society, including the mentally ill, transgender people, and circus performers, in their natural environments, the American photographer, Diane Arbus, is celebrated as one of the most unique Post-Modern American photographers.

Best-known for her intimate black-and-white provocative images, Arbus was born Diane Nemerov on March 14, 1923, in New York, NY. She was raised in a wealthy family which enabled her to pursue artistic interests from an early age. She never went to college but continued to study art through summer programs. In 1941, she married Allan Arbus, who gifted Arbus her first camera. Immediately following their marriage, she started taking photography more seriously and enrolled in classes with famed photographer, Berenice Abbot.

Visiting Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery in 1941, she and her husband were introduced to the photographs of Mathew Brady, Paul Strand, and Eugene Atget. During the mid-1940s, the married couple began a commercial photography venture that went on to contribute to magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. In 1956, tired of commercial work, Arbus began wandering the streets of New York with her camera, documenting the city through its citizens. For the first time, she began numbering her negatives, which she continued for the rest of her career.

In 1959, Allan and Diane separated, she found a renewed sense of purpose for her personal work. During this period, she worked for Esquire Magazine, which sought to publish “new journalism” which employed literary techniques to enhance reporting, and gave her a unique opportunity that helped develop her artistic voice. In 1963, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for a project on “American rites, manners, and customs”, the fellowship was renewed in 1966.

In 1967, Arbus’s images were shown alongside those of Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander in Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “New Documents”, a show which celebrated new points of view in documentary photography. Around 1968, it became evident to Arbus that she would need other sources of income beyond photographic journalism to sustain herself. To earn more money, she reluctantly began teaching college photography courses at Parsons and at Cooper Union and later gave a master class at her home in Westbeth.

Arbus grew increasingly unhealthy in the period following 1968. Her diagnoses of depression and Hepatitis B caused unwanted weight loss and a feeling of constant fatigue. Having struggled with depressive episodes throughout her life, Arbus committed suicide on July 26, 1971, at the age of 48.

In 1972, Arbus was posthumously chosen as the first photographer to ever represent the United States at the Venice Biennale. Today, her works are held in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh among others.


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