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Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus Biography

born New York City, NY (USA) 1923 died (suicide) New York City, NY (USA) 1971

Born Diane Nemerov, Arbus came from a wealthy Jewish family, in which she was overshadowed by her older brother, the poet Howard Nemerov. At age fourteen, she fell in love with actor Allan Arbus, and as soon as she became eighteen, she married him despite objections from her parents. A few years later Allan started to work as a photographer for the US Army, at night teaching Diane what he learned by day; she also learned about photography through Lisette Model. She ran a successful fashion photography studio for twenty years with her husband, before they separated in 1959. The Arbuses had two children, photographer Amy Arbus and writer and art director Doon Arbus.

After separating from her husband, she studied with Alexey Brodovitch and Richard Avedon. Then, from 1960, Arbus worked extensively as a photojournalist, her work appearing in magazines including Esquire, New York Times Magazine, Harper's Bazaar and the Sunday Times magazine, among others. She gained a Guggenheim fellow grant in 1963, and had her first show at MoMA in New York in 1967.

The work for which Arbus is most known for today is her photographs depicting outsiders, such as tranvestites, dwarves, giants, and prostitutes, as well as ordinary citizens in poses and settings that convey a disturbing uncanniness.

Although her earlier work was created using the 35mm format, by the early 1960s Arbus had adopted the Rolleiflex medium format twin-lens reflex. This provided a square aspect ratio and higher image resolution, although only had 12 frames on the film.

She taught photography in the 1960s at colleges in New York and Amherst, Massachusetts, before ending her own life in 1971 at the age of 48. It has been rumored that she took photographs of her own suicide, but none were discovered when police arrived at the scene.

Aperture magazine was later crucial in reviving the reputation of Diane Arbus. MoMA curator John Szarkowski was preparing to stage a major Arbus retrospective in 1972, but the prospect of an accompanying Diane Arbus catalogue/book been turned down by all major publishing houses in the USA and even in Europe. Aperture's Michael E. Hoffman took on the challenge, delivering one of the most influential photography books ever published, in time for the show.

Select Timeline

  • 1960 - Arbus begins working extensively as a photojournalist
  • 1963 - Arbus received a Guggenheim fellow grant
  • 1966 - Arbus received a second Guggenheim grant
  • 1967 - Staged Arbus' first museum show as the New Documents
  • 1971 - Arbus committed suicide in Greenwich Village at the age of 48
  • 1972 - Arbus became the first American photographer to be represented at the Venice Biennale

Select Artwork

  • Flower Girl
  • Retired Couple
  • Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park - 1962
  • Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey - 1967
  • A Family on Their Lawn One Sunday in Westchester
  • Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents in The Bronx, NY - 1970
  • A House on a Hill/ Hollywood, CA.
  • Young Man in Curlers at Home in West 20th Street, New York City


  • "A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know."
  • "I never have taken a picture I've intended. They're always better or worse."


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