A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know
– Diane Arbus
Diane Arbus (1923 –1971) was an American photographer. She was best known for her intimate black-and-white portraits. Arbus often photographed people on the fringes of society, including the mentally ill, transgender people, and circus performers. Arbus worked to normalize marginalized groups and highlight the importance of proper representation of all people. She worked with a wide range of subjects including; strippers, carnival performers, nudists, dwarves, children, mothers, couples, elderly people, and middle-class families. She photographed her subjects in familiar settings: their homes, on the street, in the workplace, in the park.
Hhe was raised in a wealthy family, which enabled her to pursue artistic interests from an early age. She first saw the photographs of Mathew Brady, Paul Strand, and Eugène Atget while visiting Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery with her husband Allan Arbus in 1941. During the mid-1940s, the married couple began a commercial photography venture that contributed to Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Burned out on commercial work by the 1950s, Arbus began roaming the streets of New York with her camera, documenting the city through its citizens. These images were later shown alongside those of Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander in The Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “New Documents” (1967).
In her lifetime she achieved some recognition and renown with the publication, beginning in 1960, of photographs in such magazines as Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, London’s Sunday Times Magazine, and Artforum. In 1963 the Guggenheim Foundation awarded Arbus a fellowship for her proposal entitled, “American Rites, Manners and Customs”. She was awarded a renewal of her fellowship in 1966. John Szarkowski, the director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City from 1962 to 1991, championed her work and included it in his 1967 exhibit New Documents along with the work of Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand. Her photographs were also included in a number of other major group shows. Interested in probing questions of identity, Arbus’s Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey (1967), simultaneously captured the underlying differences and physical resemblance of twin sisters.
Having struggled with depressive episodes throughout her life, Arbus committed suicide on July 26, 1971 at the age of 48. In 1972, a year after her suicide, Arbus became the first photographer to be included in the Venice Biennale where her photographs were “the overwhelming sensation of the American Pavilion” and “extremely powerful and very strange.”
The first major retrospective of Arbus’ work was held in 1972 at MoMA, organized by Szarkowski. The retrospective garnered the highest attendance of any exhibition in MoMA’s history to date. Millions viewed traveling exhibitions of her work from 1972 to 1979. The book accompanying the exhibition, Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph, edited by Doon Arbus and Marvin Israel and first published in 1972 has never been out of print.