Who Was Diane Arbus?

Diane Arbus (14 March 1923 – 26 July 1971) was an American photographer whose preferred subjects were outsiders and those on the fringes of society such as strippers, carnival performers, dwarves, nudists, and transgender people. While her preferred subjects were the marginalised, she was just as fascinated with subjects as ordinary as middle-class families.

In order to capture her subjects in as a natural state as possible, she photographed them in familiar spaces such as their homes, places of work, the park, and in the street.

As Michael Kinneman states in a review of the Diane Arbus Revelations exhibition, “her memorable work, which she did, on the whole, not for hire but for herself, was all about heart—a ferocious, audacious heart. It transformed the art of photography and it lent a fresh dignity to the forgotten and neglected people in whom she invested so much of herself.”

Early Life

Arbus was born in New York City to David and Diane Nemerov in March 1923. Her parents owed Russek’s, a famous Fifth Avenue department store, and she was largely shielded from the realities of the Great Depression owing to her parent’s wealth.

Raised by maids and governesses owing to her mother’s depression and her father’s work, Arbus married her childhood sweetheart Allan Arbus in 1941. Their 1st daughter, Doon, was born in 1945 and their 2nd daughter, Amy, was born in 1954.

Arbus and her husband worked together from 1946-1956, but separated in 1959 and divorced in 1969 when Allan moved to California to pursue a career in acting – a move just as thrilling as betting sites.

Career in Photography

The first camera Arbus received was a gift from her husband and she enrolled in classes with photographer Berenice Abbott shortly thereafter. After WWII, the husband and wife duo formed a commercial photography company called “Diane & Allan Arbus” and later studied briefly with Alexey Brodovich in 1954.

However, it wasn’t until Arbus studied alongside Lisette Model in 1956 that she was encouraged to focus exclusively on her own work. She quit her work as a commercial photographer and started wandering the streets of New York with her 35mm Nikon camera encountering her subjects largely by chance.

What followed was a career filled with many highs and lows especially considering how at the time there was no market for collecting photographs as works of art.


Similar to her mother, Arbus experienced depressive episodes during her life and the episodes appeared to be worsened by symptoms of hepatitis.

On 26 July 1971, while living at Westbeth Artist Community in New York City, she took her own life and was found 2 days later by her then partner, Marvin Israel. Arbus was just 48 years old.

Following her death, a retrospective was organized by John Szarkowski at the Museum of Modern Art in New York which had the highest attendance of any exhibition in MOMA’s history to date.

The book accompanying the exhibition edited by Doon Arbus and Marvin Israel, Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph, was first published in 1972 has never been out of print.