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(1923 – 1971), United States

Diane Arbus Biography

The first American photographer to feature in the Venice Biennale, photographer Diane Arbus is best known for her sympathetic portraits of extravagant social outsiders. Her artistic career, cut short by suicide in 1971, has been the subject of a plethora of publications and films.

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Early Years

Arbus was born in New York City. She came from a wealthy Jewish family who owned Russeks, a department store on Fifth Avenue.

Arbus began working in commercial photography in the mid-1940s and later opened a studio with her then-husband Allan Arbus. The fashion photography they created together was commissioned by leading fashion magazines such as Harper's Bazaar and Vogue.

By 1957, Arbus was dissatisfied with the constraints of commercial photography and left their business to study under photographers Berenice Abbott and Lisette Model, as well as with the highly influential graphic designer Alexey Brodovitch.

Diane Arbus Artworks

Diane Arbus' photography presents sincere images of prostitutes, cross-dressers, circus sideshows, the mentally challenged, and other fringe characters, as well as darkly toned images of families, children, and American socialites.

Vertical Journey

Arbus' own work was first published by Esquire in 1960, in a photo essay that captured aspects of New York nightlife, which she called The Vertical Journey: Six Movements of a Moment Within the Heart of the City. Included in this selection of images were people from all strata of society, from a socialite attending a Grand Opera Ball benefit to a 'Jungle creep', a street performer who put on shows with other 'freaks' in Times Square.

Arbus subsequently became the art director of Harper's Bazaar in 1961. That year, the magazine also published six of her portraits in an editorial titled 'The Full Circle'. In both magazine series, Arbus accompanies the photos with text telling the stories of these characters. Establishing strong personal connections with her subjects, Arbus distinguished herself from the norm of distance that defined documentary photography at the time.

Rolleiflex Portraits

In the early 1960s, Arbus moved from using a 35mm camera to a medium-format Rolleiflex camera with a flashgun. This marked a major development in her style and vision, which was characterised by a directness and fascination with people on the outskirts of society. This resulted in startling portraits of people considered in 1960s America to be freaks or outcasts, often taken very close up. Much of her photography was taken on the streets or in the parks of New York.

New Documents

In 1967, Arbus, who had already twice received the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in 1963 and 1966, famously exhibited in the New Documents exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. One of only three photographers to do so, her 32 works attracted significant attention from the press, including Newsweek and The New York Times.

Among the subjects of these images are families from the suburbs, individuals off the street of New York, couples, children—including several twins—cross-dressers, nudists, circus acts, and celebrities. All presented in stark black-and-white, the images paint a picture of American post-war society across all levels of social standing.

'Untitled 1970-71'

Arbus' photographs from the last years of her life were a culmination of her interest in eccentricity, anomalous identity, and groups on the fringes of society. Her 'Untitled' series (1970–71) centres around a home for developmentally disabled adults in Vineland, New Jersey. The photographs are taken outdoors with the subjects in moments of enjoyment, roaming freely in natural surrounds under grey skies instead of being portrayed as hemmed in by institutional walls.

Exhibitions

Diane Arbus has been the subject of both solo exhibition and group exhibitions in galleries and institutions internationally.

Solo exhibitions include Diane Arbus: Photographs, 1956–1971, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto (2020); Diane Arbus: A Box of Ten Photographs, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. (2018); Diane Arbus: In the Beginning, The Met Breuer, New York (2016); Diane Arbus Retrospective, Jeu de Paume, Paris (2011); Diane Arbus, Revelations, Victoria & Albert Museum, London (2005); Nineteen Faces, Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco (1989); Diane Arbus, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) (1972); Diane Arbus: Retrospective, Seibu Museum, Tokyo (1973).

Group exhibitions include PROOF: Photography in the Era of the Contact Sheet, Cleveland Museum of Art (2020); Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography, MoMA, New York (2010); Picturing New York, La Casa Encendida, Madrid (2009); Pictures of the Real World, Le Consortium, Dijon (1994); The Art of Photography 1839–1989, Royal Academy of Arts, London (1989); Mirrors & Windows: American Photography since 1960, MoMA, New York (1978); Women of Photography, San Francisco Museum of Art (1975); New Documents, MoMA, New York, (1967).

Art Market

Prints of Arbus' photographs often fetch several hundred thousand dollars at auction. Her highest grossing work is the ten-part series of prints 'A box of ten photographs' (1970), which went for US $792,500 at Christie's in 2018, closely followed by the 1966–1969 gelatin silver print of Identical Twins (1966), which sold for US $732,500 at Christie's that same year.

Ocula | 2021

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