Diane Arbus

In 1967, the curator John Szarkowski staged an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art called New Documents. It featured the work of three relatively unknown photographers: Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander and Diane Arbus. Their edgy, street-smart aesthetic caused a stir, particularly in the case of Arbus. Her pictures were transgressive in both their form and content. Fascinated by people whom she saw as living bizarre lives — transvestites, people with learning disabilities, the homeless — she photographed them as strange and mysterious.

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.

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971)

Untitled (28)

DIANE ARBUS (1923 - 1971)

A box of ten photographs

Diane Arbus (1923-1971)

Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C., 1962

DIANE ARBUS (1923–1971)

Identical twins, Roselle, N.J., 1966

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971)

Identical twins, Roselle, N.J, 1966

DIANE ARBUS (1923–1971)

Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C., 1962

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971)

A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y., 1970

Diane Arbus (1923–1971)

Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C., 1962

Diane Arbus (1923-1971)

A Jewish Giant at home with his parents, 1967

DIANE ARBUS (1923–1971)

A family on their lawn one Sunday in Westchester, N.Y. 1968

DIANE ARBUS (1923–1971)

Teenage couple on Hudson Street N.Y.C, 1963

Diane Arbus (1923-1971)

Boy with a straw hat waiting to march in a pro-war parade, N.Y.C., 1967

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971)

A Family and Their Car in a Nudist Camp in Pennsylvania, 1965

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971)

Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C., 1962

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971)

Teenage Couple on Hudson Street, N.Y.C., 1963

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971)

Teenage couple on Hudson Street, N.Y.C. 1963

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971)

Child selling plastic orchids at night, N.Y.C. 1963

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971)

A family on their lawn one Sunday in Westchester, N.Y. 1968

DIANE ARBUS (1923–1971)

Identical twins, Roselle, NJ, 1967

DIANE ARBUS (1923–1971)

Audience with projection booth, N.Y.C., 1958

DIANE ARBUS (1923–1971)

Mr. Peanut in Times Square, N.Y. C., 1956

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971)

Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C., 1962

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971)

A family one evening at a nudist camp, Pa., 1965

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971)

Headless woman, N.Y.C. 1961

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971)

Triplets in their bedroom, N.J. 1963

DIANE ARBUS (1923–1971)

Teenage boy on a bench in Central Park, N.Y.C., 1962

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971)

Identical Twins, Roselle, NJ, 1967

Diane Arbus (1923-1971)

A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y., 1970

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971)

A Jewish giant at the home of his parents, Bronx, from 'A Box of Ten', 1967

DIANE ARBUS (1923–1971)

Young couple on a bench in Washington Square Park, N.Y.C., 1965

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971)

Costume Lady in sunglasses, Central Park, N.Y.C., 1964

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971)

Couple under a paper lantern, N.Y.C., 1966

Diane Arbus (1923-1971)

Burlesque comedienne in her dressing room, Atlantic City, NJ., 1963

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971)

A Family on their lawn one Sunday in Westchester, N.Y., 1968, from 'A Box of Ten Photographs'

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971)

A flower girl at a wedding, Conn. 1964

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971)

Young girl after the Puerto Rican parade, N.Y.C. 1963

DIANE ARBUS (1923–1971)

Triplets in their bedroom, NJ, 1963

Diane Arbus (1923–1971)

Man in hat, trunks, socks and shoes, Coney Island, N.Y., 1960

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971)

Self-Portrait, Pregnant, N.Y.C., 1945

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971)

The Junior Interstate Ballroom Dance Champions, Yonkers, N.Y. 1963

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971)

Russian midget friends in a living room on 100th St, N.Y.C. 1963

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971)

Teenage couple on Hudson Street, N.Y.C. 1963

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971)

A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, N.Y.C. 1966

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971)

Three Circus Ballerinas, 1964

DIANE ARBUS (1923–1971)

Teenager with a baseball bat, N.Y.C., 1962

DIANE ARBUS (1923–1971)

Man and a boy on a bench in Central Park, N.Y.C., 1962

Diane Arbus (1923-1971)

Teenager with a baseball bat, N.Y.C., 1962

Diane Arbus (1923-1971)

Two friends in the Park, N.Y.C., 1965

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971)

Triplets in their bedroom, N.J., 1963

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971)

Patriotic young man with a flag, N.Y.C. 1967