Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus

Posted on January 19, 2015

She was one of the most controversial photographers of the 20th century with her photos of oddballs and fringe members of society but her work stands the test of time and she is considered by many to one of the greats. Here’s our Diane Arbus timeline, from her birth in 1923 to her suicide in 1971.

March 14, 1923
She is born Diane Nemerov to wealthy Jewish parents, David Nemerov and Gertrude Russek Nemerov. Her parents are the owners of Russek’s, a Fifth Avenue department store. Her older brother is Howard Nemerov, future United States Poet Laureate.

Diane, aged 18, marries her childhood sweetheart Allan Arbus, who later becomes an actor and is best known for his role as Dr. Sydney Freedman on M*A*S*H.

Allan becomes a photographer for the U.S. Army and teaches Diane his new photographic skills. He gives her her first camera. The pair later establish a successful fashion photography studio under the billing, “Diane and Allan Arbus”. The photograph for Vogue and other fashion magazines.

Early 1940s
Diane’s father hires her and Allan to do photographs for Russek’s department store.

She gives birth to their first daughter, Doon Arbus.

They close the studio and move to Europe for a year with daughter Doon, who is 6 years old.

She gives birth to their second daughter, Amy Arbus.

One of the photographs they did for Vogue of a father and son readings a newspaper is included in the Museum of Modern Art’s “The Family of Man” show.

Diane suddenly quits the joint photography business with Allan. She tells him: “I can’t do it anymore. I’m not going to do it anymore.” Allan is understanding. He later says: “At a fashion sitting, I was the one operating the camera. I was directing the models on what to do. And Diane would have to go in and pin the dress if it wasn’t hanging right. It was demeaning to her. It was a repulsive role … But it came out all right. In some ways, it was easier to work, because I didn’t have that load of Diane’s dissatisfaction to deal with.”

Diane becomes increasingly fascinated by misfits, “freaks,” cross dressers, circus performers, and other outcasts and begins making them the subject of her photography. She begins studying with photographer Lisette Model. Allan Arbus says that Lisette is what transformed Diane’s photography: “Three sessions and Diane was a photographer.”

Diane would later tell her own students: “It was my teacher, Lisette Model, who finally made it clear to me that the more specific you are, the more general it’ll be.”

She and Allan separate but are still very much involved in each other’s lives. The same year, she moves into a West Village carriage house.

November 1959
She meets Marvin Israel, art director of Seventeen magazine. He is married to Margie Ponce Israel but the two become lovers.

She takes the photo, Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park. It is a photo of Colin Wood, who later says of the photo: “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 she hoped that by wallowing in that feeling, through photography, she could transcend herself.”

Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park

Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park by Diane Arbus

She swiches from her 35 mm Nikon to a twin-lens reflext Rolleiflex camera which produced more detailed images.

Arbus is awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for her project on “American rites, manners, and customs”.

She begins using a twin-lens reflex Mamiya camera with flash in addition to her Rolleiflex.

Her Guggenheim Fellowship is renewed.

She takes one of her most famous photographs: Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967. The twins, Cathleen and Colleen Wade, are seven years old. Their father later says of the photo: “We thought it was the worst likeness of the twins we’d ever seen.”

Identical Twins Roselle New Jersey 1967

Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967 by Diane Arbus

Her photo A very young baby, NYC 1968 is one of many pictures of babies that she took for Harper’s Bazaar but this one is famous now because it is a photo of CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, son of Gloria Vanderbilt. The photograph now hangs in Anderson Cooper’s bedroom.

A Very Young Baby NYC 1968

A very young baby, NYC 1968 by Diane Arbus

Late 1968
She writes a letter to Carlotta Marshall and says: “I go up and down a lot. Maybe I’ve always been like that. Partly what happens though is I get filled with energy and joy and I begin lots of things or think about what I want to do and get all breathless with excitement and then quite suddenly either through tiredness or a disappointment or something more mysterious the energy vanishes, leaving me harassed, swamped, distraught, frightened by the very things I thought I was so eager for! I’m sure this is quite classic.”

She and Allan officially divorce when Allan moves to Los Angeles.

She takes the photo, Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, NY, 1970. The subject is Eddie Carmel and he is standing next to his parents who look small compared to his 8’9″ stature. He dies two years after the photo is taken.

Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, NY

Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, NY, 1970 by Diane Arbus

July 26, 1971
While living at Westbeth Artists Community in New York City, Diane commits suicide by slashing her wrists and taking an overdose of barbiturates while fully clothed in the bathtub. She is 48 years old.

July 28, 1971
Marvin Israel finds her body. The Medical Examiner’s Office writes the following in her autopsy report: “Diary suggestive of suicidal intent, taken on July 26th, noted.” A friend of Israel’s says he saw the words “last supper” in her open diary.

She is the first American photography to have photographs shown at the Venice Biennale. They display ten of her photographs which are described as “an extraordinary achievement.”

The first major retrospective of her work is held at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City.

A print of Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967 sells at Sotheby’s in New York for $478,000.

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