The Biography of Diane Arbus


Diane Arbus was a US based photographer who used still photography, essentially black and white to bring out the diversity and travesty of life. Her subjects were ordinary citizens, fringe society members such as prostitutes, dwarfs, transvestites and other people who did not exactly keep to the mainstream society. She also excelled in capturing expression and unguarded moments of children and other people and displayed the diversity of personality. This paper explores Diane Arbus and discusses some of her eminent works.

Brief Biography

Diane Arbus was born to a well to do Jewish family in New York on 14 March 1923. She met her future husband Allan Arbus and married him when she turned 18. Her husband was a photographer who was training with the US army and he shared his photography lessons. Diane developed an interest in photography and the husband wife soon became successful fashion photographers. They even had two daughters abut soon differences came up between them and they decided to divorce, finally parting bu 1959. After her breakup, she took to photo journalism and several leading magazines such as New York Times, Esquire, Sunday Times, Harpers Bazaar and others published her pictures. The quickly gained recognition for her work and gained international reputation as a celebrated photographer. Haunted by her own demons, she finally committed suicide in July 1971 when she was 48 (Bosworth. 1992).


The kind of photography that Diane practiced and the type of subjects she photographed created many controversies. There is also the fact that she was immensely successful and this may have created feeling of jealousy among her peers. Among her subjects were people who were not mentioned openly in the public and these included transvestites, prostitutes, dwarves, giants, misshaped freaks and other such people. It was alleged that Diane used unorthodox measures to bring out strong emotions and some reports have even suggested that she had sex with her subjects. However, whatever the methods she has been accused of, the results are a wonderful display of photography and how human emotions speak loudest when accompanied by anger, impatience and relief (Arbus, 2003).

The Artist and her works

Diane took a course in photography from Bernice Abbot and later teamed up with the Austrian born Lisette Model who was a documentary photographer and learnt the art of creating photo essays, in which the photographs had their own language and spoke of reams of feelings that written words could not describe. Her first photo essay was featured in Esquire magazine in 1960 where she brought out the squalor and misery of New York, juxtaposed with luxury and this set her on her path of photography. She received the Guggenheim fellowships and played an important role in the project called ‘American Rites, Manners, and Customs’ and she moved away from commercial photography to fine art photography. Critics have extolled her works as well as criticized her for her deep empathy with her subjects. While some critics have wondered at the close relation she developed with her subjects that made them open up their emotions and feelings, other have criticized for being a voyeur into their personal life and called it as taking advantage of the need of handicapped people to gain some recognition. To the critics, Diane was no different than the society seeming Philanthropists who often gave donations and other gifts to gain some cheap publicity (Katzenstein, 2004).

What I’m trying to describe is that it’s impossible to get out of your skin into somebody else’s…. That somebody else’s tragedy is not the same as your own.” And of her subjects who were physically unusual, she said, “Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. [These people] were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.” (Bosworth, 1992)

Given below are some of her outstanding works across the years.

The above photographs are some of the images from her vast collection of black and white photography and Diane excelled in bringing out the contrasts. In the early 1960s, photographer’s preferred black and white photographs, shot with film roll and Diane had excelled in playing with the shades of gray, white and black to bring out strong emotions. US in the early 1960s was in the throes tyranny of normalcy and this contrasted with its reputation as the refuge of individualism and liberty. Diane used her acute sensory perception to bring out people who had an inherent stigma attached and whose personality could be captured in a photograph (Segal, 2005).

One of her most famous photographs is ‘Identical Twin’ shown in the above table. Two little identical twin girls are standing close to each other, wearing a dark frocks with a white bib and hair band and framed against a white background. The picture has been composed in such a manner that white contrasts with black to bring out the two girls in clear lines. The girl on the right is smiling while the one on the left is rather grim faced, as if conscious that she is posing for a picture. The diversity among equality theme is highlighted here and the contrast is apparent. Diane has tried to evoke some confusion in the viewers who would expect that the twins are conjoined at the arms, but this is an illusion she has created, to show the closeness of the twins. Another picture “Russian midget friends in a living room on 100th Street” is a study in contrasts. The subjects are midgets and Diane had an opportunity to photograph them in their home. In the picture are shown an old man and three women, highlighted by natural lighting designed to keep much of the background in black. Diane has again artfully used the proper amount of light and exposure so that the three figures are brought out forcefully while the rest of the props remain muted. The middle women can be seen smiling while the one on the right is seen bending towards the couple, resting her hand on the other women’s hand, as if seeking assurance. The old man is staring curiously and with some fear as he holds the middle women’s hand, seeking sustenance. The three figures are alone in the dark background with some other figures in the background (Riper, 2007).

While Diane can be accused to be a photographer of freaks, there are some differences between her and other photographers. Other photographers of freaks always attached names to subjects and gave their real or stage names and attempted to show that the freaks were well adjusted, had money and education and status in society and the subjects were professional performers. Diane did not attach any names to her subjects and kept them in anonymity as her subjects were away from the glare of publicity and were often poor and broke. She just attached generic names such as Transvestite, Jewish Giant, Jewish Dwarves and so on. Other biographers have never explained this aspect of her behavior and it is conjectured that she did not wish these people to suffer further by becoming famous while others have suggested that she wanted to keep her subjects to herself (Davies, 2005).

One of her most pictures is ‘Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C’. In the picture, a thin child in half pants and jumper is standing under a tree. In one hand, the child is holding a toy grenade while the other is shaped in the form of a claw. The child has slanted its head to one side and there is a small pout forming, showing the impatient it had with the photographer. One sleeve of the jumper has come loose as the child stares at the camera in vexation. The image is wonderfully composed and the tree casts patchy shadows and brief patches of sunlight fall on the ground and are interspaced with patches of shadows of the dark foliage. The background seems to be creating an moving pattern and shows the flicking attention of the child, here one instant and gone the other. It seems that Diane made the child for quite a long time, waiting for the right expression that was natural to come out and the child, initially eager to be photographed did pose, rather smiling artificially and that was not what Diane wanted. So, she moved around the child, waiting for the right expression to come and claiming that the angle was not right. Finally, the child got impatient and frowned and that was when Diane got her picture (Bosworth, 1992).

The manner in which she took her photographs was designed to bring out the best or worst among her subjects. She never allowed her subjects to prepare for a photograph or preen themselves and preferred their natural look. Greer (2005) points out that Diane did not like to have an audience when she was shooting and preferred to be alone with her subjects. When Diane came to photograph Greene, she asked her to lie on back on her bed and then jumped on her chest with the camera focused in her face and her knees straddling Greer’s chest. Her Rolleiflex camera was held wait high with lens pointing right into her face. Now Greer knew that at such a close range, the picture would be full of skin pores and warts and the picture would have more of these than her face and would not be flattering. Grrer was not wearing any make up and had not even combed her face and was loathe to get herself photographer in this position. As the tension and claustrophobia started building up, Greer knew that soon a woman in distress would emerge so she kept her calm and concentrated deeply breathing and not giving out any expression. This went for a few minutes and finally Diane got off, packed her equipment and walked off.

To Diane, taking the mask off people and capturing the natural look was the most important mission. She would make the subjects wait for long time till they would forget their composure and display some kind of natural emotion such as distress, anger, boredom, indifference, shyness and then in the brief instant when the guard was down, she could shoot and capture the emotions. This was particularly trying when trying to shoot babies or freaks. While babies have a mind of their own, it would be difficult to make them respond properly (Bosworth, 1992).

Playing with light was her expertise and this can be seen in one of her works ‘Couple Kissing Onstage, NYC/Valentino Look Alike at an Audition’. Taking a distance shot, Diane has made the couple stand just at the periphery of the bright focus of light so that while the light does not engulf them, it sheds just enough light for them to be noticed. The rest of the stage is dark and in black, white, and the lines of force are directed only towards the couple. Even their shadows are lost in the background darkness. The man is leaning forward to kiss the girl, while the girl is leaning back, seeming as if resisting the force of the kiss but yet pushing her pelvis forward so that the image of kissing itself can be seen as an act of consummation of the passion. The darkness seems to be the sin that the couple would be entering into while the shining light is the focus of all that is good and pure. Another of her picture is the one named ‘Tattooed man’. In this picture, the man is tattooed heavily with hairy chest and gaunt cheeks and he is standing with his chest bared, looking at something behind the photographer. Again in this picture, there is contrast in the way that the muscles and sinews are tensed up, indicating as if the man is expecting something worst. (Segal, 2005).

When Diane killed herself by slitting her wrists, the world lost a great photographer who could look into the personality of people, remove the mask they had made for themselves and bring out the inner beauty. To Diane, a misshapen dwarf was as good as a high society celebrity and it was only their inner self she was interested in.


The paper has discussed the works of Diane Arbus who was a famous photographer from USA. Her pictures on freaks of society such as dwarves, giants, transvestites and prostitutes explore deep into the personality and bring out their inner feelings. To Diane, her camera was a medium with which she explored humans and attempted to bring out the diversity.


Arbus Diane. 2003. Diane Arbus Revelations. Random House.

Bosworth Patricia. 1992. Diane Arbus: A Biography (1984, reissued 1995); Doon Arbus and Marvin Israel (eds.), Diane Arbus, Magazine Work.

Davies Christie. 2005. Art as Freak Show: Diane Arbus, Revelations at the V&A. 2008. Web.

Greer Germaine. 2005. .

Katzenstein, Bill. 2004. Re-visiting Diane Arbus. Shutter Release magazine.

Masters. 2007. A Portfolio of 28 Photographs, Diane Arbus: Masters of Fine Art Photography. Web.

Riper Frank Van. 2007. Frank Van Riper on Photography. Web.

Segal David. 2005. Double Exposure: A Moment With Diane Arbus Created A Lasting Impression. 2008. Web.