Arbus was born Diane Nemerov in New York City in 1923. Her childhood was a privileged one: her family owned a large department store on Fifth Avenue, and she lived in a grand apartment overlooking Central Park. In later life she was to say that her cosseted upbringing spurred her on to seek out excitement and danger in the real world.
In 1941, she married Allan Arbus and together they set up a photography studio, producing fashion shoots for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Glamour. In 1956, she began studying with the Austrian-American photographer Lisette Model, whose psychologically-charged depictions of people living on the fringes of society inspired Arbus to formulate a raw and unflinching aesthetic.
Arbus had an insatiable curiosity about people and how they lived. Her black-and-white portraits of anonymous individuals had a dark, formal beauty that unsettled and disturbed. One of her most famous pictures is of a young boy, face and hands contorted, holding a toy grenade in Central Park. Another is her portrait of identical twins, taken at an identical twin convention in Roselle, New Jersey. Her pictures asked questions of the viewer about the limits of looking and the predatory nature of photography.
In 1971, having suffered depression for much of her life, Arbus committed suicide at the age of 48. A major retrospective of her work was mounted the following year by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 2023, A box of ten photographs, a rare 1970 portfolio of her work, sold for £1 million at Christie’s New York — a world record price for the photographer.
A Family on their lawn one Sunday in Westchester, N.Y., 1968, from 'A Box of Ten Photographs'