Diane Arbus

(1923 - 1971)

About The Artist

Working in the 1950s and 1960s, photographer Diane Arbus is known for her straightforward yet psychologically affecting images of people at the sidelines of society, such as circus performers, drag queens, the developmentally challenged, and those with rare or uncommon physical attributes. Of her fondness for these subjects, she said: “Individuals all different, all wanting different things, all knowing different things, all loving different things, all looking different. […] That is what I love: the differentness.”

Arbus had an uncanny knack for getting to know the people she photographed, and was allowed entry into private homes, dressing rooms, and other intimate quarters. She would photograph her subjects for days or weeks, and in some cases, over the course of many years. As her unofficial biographer noted: “She would start talking to them and they would be as fascinated with her as she was with them.”

Arbus began her professional career in 1947 and worked for a decade in fashion photography and styling. Creatively unfulfilled, she tried her hand at photojournalism, and gained her first assignment in 1959 for Esquire magazine. Using a 35-millimeter camera and natural light, her method of choice at the time for its blurry and grainy textures, she turned in a photo essay that focused on New York City’s eccentric residents: the troubled homeless, street performers, a young socialite. She went on to publish in dozens of magazines, including Harper’s Bazaar and London’s The Sunday Times Magazine. However, Arbus eventually felt constrained by photojournalism, desiring to create art for art’s sake. The photographer also swapped her 35-millimeter for a 2 ¼ large-format Rolleiflex camera and a big, bright strobe flash. Moving on from her earlier blurred, romantic images, she now sought clarity—metaphorically and literally, for herself and for her audience— in how she pictured the disenfranchised and marginalized. In 1960, she photographed the 7-foot-7-inch Eddie Carmel, who was touring with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus as a sideshow “giant.” But, this initial image did not get at the heart of what Arbus wanted to capture: the person behind the persona. A friendship grew between Arbus and Carmel, and, a decade later, Arbus shot and printed the candid and poignant A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y. (1970).

Arbus always had a way of seeking out the unusual. In 1967, she learned of a Christmas party being held for twins and triplets in New Jersey. Here, she captured her famous Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey (1967). The two girls—one smiling, the other not—look at the camera head-on. Their faces, identical yet augmented by varying expressions, are symbolic of Arbus’ search for the paradox of how people are different yet the same. In 1971, Arbus committed suicide after another bout of depression, a condition she suffered with throughout her lifetime. Critics often align her personal biography and temperament with the connections that she made with her ostracized subjects. From 2003–2006, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art organized the international traveling exhibition Diane Arbus: Revelations, which made various stops including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

DeCarlo, Tessa. “A Fresh Look at Diane Arbus.” Smithsonian Magazine, May 2004. Web. 6 Sept. 2014.
“Diane Arbus, Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967.” Collections. The Art Institute of Chicago. Web. 6 Sept. 2014.