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Artists’ Birthdays: March the 14th – Diane Arbus (1923)

March 14, 2012

Would you like to know it all? We would! That’s why the theme for our Know It All Section for 2012 is Artists’ Birthdays. We hope that these posts will help to increase our and your knowledge in Art History. Lets get acquainted with more painters, lets recognise their artwork and be inspired by the masterpieces!

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Every month I search for three artists to present in our „Artists’ Birthdays“ section – I’m always drawn to people who have left incredible legacy and probably are already well know, yet now and then I find interesting personalities, who just have to be mentioned. This time it’s one more woman, one more American photographer, who ended her life in a suicide (please click here for our post about Francesca Woodman). Well, let me ask you, wouldn’t you want to know more about a woman, who took photographs that are described as having “an extraordinary ethical conviction, because they were taken with the subjects’ consent and thereby challenge the viewer” (Max Kozloff)?

Anyway, if you read on, you will be able to decide if you agree with Norman Mailer’s statement that “giving a camera to Diane Arbus is like putting a live grenade in the hands of a child”.

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Diane Arbus (1923 – 1971)

Diane Arbus (March 14, 1923 – July 26, 1971) was an American photographer and writer noted for black-and-white square photographs of “deviant and marginal people (dwarfs, giants, transvestites, nudists, circus performers) or of people whose normality seems ugly or surreal.” As it often happens in life, what Diane fared the most, happened – her friend said that she was “afraid… that she would be known simply as the photographer of freaks” and that phrase has been used repeatedly to describe Diane Arbus.

Arbus was born as Diane Nemerov to David Nemerov and Gertrude Russek Nemerov. The Nemerovs were a Jewish couple who lived in New York City and owned Russek’s, a famous Fifth Avenue department store. Because of the family’s wealth, Diane was insulated from the effects of the Great Depression while growing up in the 1930s. Diane and her siblings must have been growing up in a very creative atmosphere as her father became a painter after retiring from Russeks; her younger sister would become a sculptor and designer; and her older brother, Howard Nemerov – United States Poet Laureate.

Diane Nemerov attended the Fieldston School for Ethical Culture, a prep school. In 1941, at the age of 18, she married her childhood sweetheart Allan Arbus. Their first daughter Doon (who would later become a writer) was born in 1945 and their second daughter Amy (who would later become a photographer) was born in 1954. Diane and Allan Arbus separated in 1958, and they were divorced in 1969.

In 1971, at the age of 48, Diane commited suicide. She experienced “depressive episodes” during her life similar to those experienced by her mother, and the episodes may have been made worse by symptoms of hepatitis. Already in 1968 she wrote  “I go up and down a lot”, and her ex-husband noted that she had “violent changes of mood” – after a few years this was simply too much.

Some of Diane Arbus’s most well-known individual photographs:

With the left strap of his jumper awkwardly hanging off his shoulder, tensely holds his long, thin arms by his side. Clenching a toy grenade in his right hand and holding his left hand in a claw-like gesture, his facial expression is maniacal. A print of this photograph was sold in 2005 at auction for $408,000.

A close-up shows the man’s pock-marked face with plucked eyebrows, and his hand with long fingernails holds a cigarette. Early reactions to the photograph were strong; for example, someone spit on it in 1967 at the Museum of Modern Art. A print was sold for $198,400 at a 2004 auction.

Young twin sisters Cathleen and Colleen Wade stand side by side in dark dresses. The twin on the right slightly smiles and twin on the left slightly frowns. This photograph is echoed in Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining, which features twins in an identical pose as ghosts. A print was sold at auction for $478,400 in 2004. The photograph also appears briefly in the 2007 film Butterfly on a Wheel when one character receives a book of Arbus’ work as a gift.

Eddie Carmel, the “Jewish Giant”, stands in his family’s apartment with his much shorter mother and father. Arbus reportedly said to a friend about this picture: “You know how every mother has nightmares when she’s pregnant that her baby will be born a monster?… I think I got that in the mother’s face….” The photograph motivated Carmel’s cousin to narrate a 1999 audio documentary about him. A print was sold at auction for $421,000 in 2007.

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In 1972, a year after she committed suicide, Arbus became the first American photographer to have photographs displayed at the Venice Biennale. Millions of people viewed traveling exhibitions of her work in 1972–1979. In 2003–2006, Arbus and her work were the subjects of another major traveling exhibition, Diane Arbus Revelations. In 2006, the motion picture Fur, starring Nicole Kidman as Arbus, presented a fictional version of her life story.

For Diane Arbus’s photographs please visit her official website – click here.

Information for this post found on Wikipedia.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 15, 2012 3:24 pm

    These are pretty amazing photographs. I know I’ve seen the ‘Jewish Giant’ picture before, but I didn’t know the story behind it. Great post.

    • March 17, 2012 8:40 am

      Thank you for your comment, Molly. I have also seen some of these photos before, but didn’t know anything about them. Looking at some of them it’s hard to believe that they were taken in the 60s; can you imagine the public reaction back then? I wonder what would be as shocking to us these days – it looks like nothing can surprise us anymore…

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