National Museum of Women in the Arts
Diane Arbus
March 14 1923 - July 26 1971
Place of Birth:
New York
Phonetic Spelling:
dee-AN AHR-buhs
Minority status:
White non-Hispanic
Work Type/Media:
Artistic Role(s):
Fashion Photographer, Photographer
Artist's Biography:
Diane Arbus was one of the leading American photographers of the twentieth century. Her mastery of the black-and-white camera image was flawless, but it is the unmatched boldness of her gaze which immediately arrests the viewer. The most well-known of her portraits are haunting images of those who lived on the fringes of society in disconcertingly ordinary situations.

Born in New York to a wealthy family, she married young and began her career in fashion journalism by helping her husband, Allan Arbus, set up shoots for Glamour and Vogue magazine. She studied photography with Berenice Abbott in the 1940s and Alexey Brodovitch in the mid-1950s, but it was Lisette Model who truly inspired Arbus to pursue a solo career. Following Model’s technique, Arbus abandoned the standard 35mm format for a wide-angle Rolleiflex camera which produces 2 ¼” square negatives. Because this camera is held at waist-level, with the photographer looking down, the photographer-subject relationship is altered; the compositions are more intimate, and, when combined with Arbus’s signature irregular black borders, emphasize both the tactile surface and psychological dimension of her subjects. Arbus’s subjects included debutants, bodybuilders, nudists, dwarves, and transvestites painstakingly posed in their homes, on the street, and in the workplace. Her affinity for imperfections and the exotic, while seemingly voyeuristic, unflinchingly documented the realities of America’s social landscape.

Arbus received Guggenheim Fellowships in 1963 and 1966 for her photographs of contests, festivals, and public and private rituals she gathered on her travels around the country. She taught at the Parsons School of Design, The Cooper Union, and the Rhode Island School of Design. Despite serious reservations about exhibiting her works for fear of misinterpretation, Arbus was featured in a major photography exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in 1967.

Over and over she probed beyond the commonplace of everyday life to reveal the shock of sexual circumstances or outrageous social conditions. Her photographs blur the lines of theater and reality, the exotic and the ordinary, and highlight the power of photographer-subject collaboration. After suffering from depression for many years, Arbus ended her own life in 1971. The following year, The Museum of Modern Art organized a major retrospective which, along with other posthumous international exhibitions and publications, have continued to propel Arbus into an almost legendary status in photography history.

Other Occupation(s):
Photojournalist, Professor, Traveler, Writer
Place(s) of Residence:
New York
Where Trained/Schools:
The New School for Social Research, New York, NY, USA (1955-1957) Ethical and Culture School, New York, NY, USA (1928-1940) Fieldstone School, New York, NY, USA (1928-1940)
Related Visual Artists:
wife of Allan Arbus student of Berenice Abbott student of Alexey Brodovitch student of Lisette Model teacher of Barbara Kruger mother of Amy Arbus mother of Doon Arbus friend of Nancy Grossman friend of Richard Avedon
Fellowships, grants and awards:
Fellowship, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, New York, NY, USA (1966, 1963)
Earliest exhibition:
New Documents, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, USA (1967)
NMWA exhibition(s):
Defining Eye: Women Photographers of the 20th Century
A History of Women Photographers
Artist retrospective(s):
Diane Arbus Revelations, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA, USA (2003) Diane Arbus, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, USA (1972)
Related places
New York (died at)