1923: A Photographer Who Would See the Creepy Side of Life Is Born

Diane Arbus had a spectacular gift for portraying 'freaks' and people on the margins, but her reasons for suicide at 48 may have lain elsewhere.

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Diane Arbus, a rare photograph taken by Allan Arbus. She is looking at the camera and wearing a bead necklace and what appears to be a plaid shirt. Black and white. 1949.
Diane Arbus, a rare photograph taken by Allan Arbus, 1949Credit: Allan Arbus/The Estate of Diane Arbus, Wikimedia Commons

March 14, 1923, is the birthdate of photographer Diane Arbus, who achieved legendary status in her lifetime for her images of freakish human subjects - and cemented that status when she killed herself in 1971, at the age of 48. Many of her fans and critics could not help but infer that the often creepy and joyless subject matter of her art had driven her to despair and eventually to slitting her wrists. The fact that for the first three decades after her death, Arbus’ family refused nearly any access to her work or her writing couldn’t help but strengthen that conclusion. But the truth was more complex.

Diane (pronounced “Dee-ann) Nemerov was born and grew up in New York, as part of a family endowed with wealth, privilege and good taste. Her father, David Nemerov, and her mother, the former Gertrude Russek, together ran Russek’s, the upscale department store owned by Gertrude’s family.

'Princess' or predator?

Diane and her siblings, Howard Nemerov,  later a writer who served as poet laureate of the United States, and Renee Sparkia, a sculptor and designer – were raised in expansive apartments, first on Central Park West and later Park Ave. Diane attended the progressive, private Ethical Culture Fieldston School, where she took painting lessons but stopped, because she found it came to her too easy.

In a 1968 radio interview with journalist Studs Terkel, Arbus recalled that, ''The family fortune always seemed to me humiliating. It was like being a princess in some loathsome movie'' set in ''some kind of Transylvanian obscure Middle European country.''

In 1941, Diane married Allan Arbus, an aspiring photographer whom she had met five years earlier, when he was working in the Russek’s advertising department. (Allan later became an actor, and was best known for his role as the army psychiatrist Dr. Sidney Fredman in the long-running television series “M.A.S.H.”)

In 1946, the young couple, helped initially by commissions from Diane’s family’s store, opened their own fashion photography studio. They worked together for a decade, until Diane decided she had had enough. They also had two daughters. The couple separated in 1959, and divorced in 1969.

When she gave up commercial work, Arbus began studying with the Vienna-born photographer Lisette Model  – not her first teacher, but the most influential. It was under her mentorship that Arbus began photographing people on society’s margins.

Image by Diane ArbusCredit: Yuval Chen

To this day, critics disagree about Arbus’ intentions in her work, and her relationship to the people she photographed. Among some, as Judith Thurman wrote in The New Yorker, “Arbus was exalted as a genius,” while others “reviled [her] as a predator who conned her subjects out of their dignity.”

Walking the precipice

There’s no doubt that Arbus invested immeasurable energy and time – sometimes years –in getting to know her subjects and gaining their trust. They included Eddie Carmel, “The Jewish Giant,” as she called him, whom she photographed with his comparatively diminutive parents in their apartment; identical twin sisters, who look as if they possess evil preternatural powers; and her photo of a naked transvestite man, his genitals tucked invisibly between his legs, posed like Botticelli’s “Venus.”

She was drawn to people living in extreme situations, and is said to have pushed herself in her own personal life to walk along the precipice.

Arbus suffered from depression much of her life. It’s not clear, however, why she killed herself on July 26, 1971, but it happened when all of the people she was close to were out of town and unavailable to her. On the other hand, she was apparently attaining great satisfaction from her work at the time.

Her daughter Doon has had control of her mother’s estate since her death, and she and the rest of the family responded to the inevitably lurid interest in Diane Arbus by turning down every request to examine her correspondence or other writings, her unpublished photographs – in fact, everything. After an authorized 1972 retrospective, and an accompanying monograph, it would be another three decades before the door would open again, and material that gave significant insight into Arbus’ thinking and work became available.