Diane Arbus was one of the most inspirational, but also most controversial American photographers of the 20th century. If you’d like to learn more about her, Martin Kaninsky of All About Street Photography has an amazing video for you. In about 15 minutes, he’ll introduce you to the fascinating life and work of this famous 20th-century photographer.
The video begins with a quote from Diane Arbus herself, saying “I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them.” Indeed, she was often photographed “freaks” and people who were on a margin of society at the time.
Arbus was born in 1923 in New York City as Diane Nemerov and her parents were wealthy Jewish immigrants from Soviet Russia. She married her high school sweetheart Allan Arbus when she was only 18 years old. You may know him from the famous TV series M*A*S*H, but back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, he and Diane were both working as photographers.
Together with her husband, Diane Arbus was shooting commercial photos for magazines like Glamour, Seventeen, and Vogue. They reportedly both disliked the fashion world, and Diane slowly began to explore and develop her own style after a while. In 1956, she started her studies with Lisette Model, and it had a big influence on her. This encouraged her to become more devoted to her own work.
Diane Arbus was first working with a 35mm Nikon camera. She was drawn to “grainy things” she would photograph with it, explaining that grain would make “a kind of tapestry of all these little dots.” However, with time, she wanted to see beyond that and she wanted more clarity on her images. She switched to a twin-lens reflex Rolleiflex, and in 1964, she began using a 2-1/4 Mamiyaflex camera.
As for Diane Arbus’ style, she was one of the pioneers of using flash during daylight. It would help her to separate her subjects, as Martin notes. It would also distort the natural lighting, adding to the often eerie, weird and even disturbing atmosphere of her images.
Diane Arbus would choose strippers, carnival performers, nudists, dwarves, and members of the LGBTQ+ community to be her subjects. She preferred photographing them in familiar settings: their homes, on the street, in the workplace, or in the park. “For me the subject of the picture is always more important than the picture,” the photographer once said.
Arbus’ images also included couples, elderly people, middle-class families, mothers, and children. In fact, one of her most famous photos depicts a young boy with a toy hand grenade in his hand. This boy’s name is Colin Wood, and Martin found his amazing excerpt about Diane Arbus:
“She catches me in a moment of exasperation. It’s true, I was exasperated. My parents had divorced and there was a general feeling of loneliness, a sense of being abandoned. I was just exploding. She saw that and it’s like… Commiseration. She captured the loneliness of everyone. It’s all people who want to connect but don’t know how to connect. And I think that’s how she felt about herself. She felt damaged and hoped that by wallowing in that feeling, through photography, she could transcend herself.”
Unfortunately, Diane Arbus was indeed fighting an internal battle that she eventually lost. She and Allan divorced in 1969, and her ex-husband once noted that she had “violent changes of mood.” She reportedly experienced “depressive episodes” during her life, similar to those experienced by her mother who was suffering from depression. In 1971, at the age of 48, the photographer took her own life.
I personally like Diane Arbus’ work, her style, as well as the choice of subjects. Despite her short life, I believe that her work will continue to live for many, many years to come. If you also enjoy her photography and want to learn more about her, make sure to watch Martin’s video for more details. He also offers lots of great resources in the description where you can read more.