April 22, 2013

Artist of the Day

Diane Arbus

Three decades after Diane Arbus took her own life, her controversial portraits of the eccentric, the freakish and the alienated continue to exert a powerful influence on modern photography. "Photography was a license to go wherever I wanted to go and do whatever I wanted to do," Arbus said. With a camera as a shield, she entered a world far beyond the affluent New York of her youth, and returned with unforgettable images-the exasperated child with a toy hand grenade, an unsettling pair of twins, a Jewish giant towering over his parents-that have become icons of strangeness and pathos.

 Born in New York City on March 14, 1923, the eldest daughter of David Nemerov and Gertrude Russek, Diane was raised in a household of unusual privilege. Her mother's family owned the Russeks chain of fur and department stores, where her father worked as merchandising director. The son of a grocer, David Nemerov had worked his way up from the position of a window dresser to marry the founder's daughter. Diane, her elder brother Howard and her younger sister Renée were all born into a noveau riche family of the New York fashion circle, where the image of prosperity counted even more than wealth itself. 

Of her childhood, Diane would later say: "I was treated like a crummy princess." A private, intelligent girl, highly devoted to her brother, Diane was nevertheless expected to conform to an affluent Jewish ideal that included expensive clothes, piano lessons and the prospect of becoming a full-time wife and mother. This sheltered upbringing, in which she was shielded from all signs of poverty or strangeness, would one day drive her to seek out images of darkness and transgression against societal norms in her work as a photographer. 

Even as a child, Diane rebelled against her family in small ways. Though her father objected to the artistic ambitions of his children, Diane excelled in painting at Fieldston, a private school in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx, and confessed that she wanted to be a "great sad artist" when she grew up. (Eventually, the Nemerov children all became artists, notably Howard, who won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry and served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1988-1990.) In 1937, when Diane was 14, an even greater rebellion presented itself: she fell in love with Allan Arbus, a copy boy in the Russeks art department-and insisted that she wanted to marry him right away. 

Despite the fact that their own marriage had also crossed social boundaries, Diane's parents strongly opposed her romance with this 19 year old whose only ambition was to become an actor. Nonetheless, she and Allan continued a clandestine courtship for the next four years. While her brother went off to Harvard University, Diane insisted that marriage was all she wanted. Finally, her parents relented, and she and Allan were married on April 10, 1941, shortly after Diane's eighteenth birthday. 

During World War II, Allan was trained in combat photography. After his return, he and Diane began to support themselves as fashion photographers. Diane learned the trade secondhand, assisting Allan at photo shoots and taking lessons from him in the darkroom. Their first major account was photographing Russeks fashion and furs for newspaper ads; other clients soon followed, and by 1947 they were shooting fashion speads for Glamour, Vogue and other magazines on a regular basis. 

As a fashion duo, the couple had an almost symbiotic relationship, working in close collaboration on all their assignments. Despite their apparent success, however, they often struggled: fashion work did not pay very well, and Diane's family refused to help support the young couple. Diane herself sometimes suffered from intense depression, which rarely had a visible cause, and may have been genetic in nature. In any case, she insisted that she wanted nothing more than to be a faithful wife and a loving mother to their two daughters, Doon and Amy. 

 Moreover, neither Diane nor Allan found fashion photography-with its sameness and lack of artistic freedom-very satisfying. Allan continued to dream of success as an actor, while Diane began to take pictures on her own. Chronically shy at first, she began by photographing children and her friends; in 1957, however, she withdrew from fashion work to pursue her own projects full-time. She admired photographer Lisette Model, who was famous for her pictures of poverty and the grotesque; after repeatedly calling Model in hopes of purchasing one of her photographs, she was invited to join Model's art class. 

During this period, the elements of Diane's characteristic style began to emerge. Like Model, Diane felt that photography was an exchange between artist and subject, and that it often took many exposures to bring out the subject's true character. Diane was drawn to the strange, even the taboo. "I want to photograph what is evil," she told Model, and with her 35-mm camera as a shield, she ventured into unusual places (tenements, Coney Island, circuses, Hubert's Freak Museum), snapping hundreds of pictures. 

Soon afterward, the Arbuses' marriage crumbled. There was apparently infidelity on both sides. Years earlier, Diane had engaged a brief affair with Alex Eliot, the art editor of Time and a longtime mutual friend of the Arbuses; later, Allan fell in love with a woman in one of his acting classes. In 1959, they decided to separate, though they did not divorce for another decade, and Allan continued to send money to Diane and their children when he could. (As an actor, Allan eventually found success, notably in a featured role on the television series M*A*S*H.) 

Though deeply depressed by the separation, Diane continued to work, contributing photo essays to Esquire magazine. She photographed people on the street as well as such unconventional subjects as dwarves, giants and transvestites, taking many exposures until she captured the strangeness in the ordinary and the humanity of the strange. Most of her pictures were composed like conventional portraits, with the subject looking directly into the camera lens; the Rolleiflex camera she used provided great clarity and vividness within its square frame. 

To obtain the emotional immediacy that made her pictures so famous, Diane Arbus often went to extremes, sometimes following her subjects into their homes. Rumor has it that Arbus slept with many of her subjects; in any case, she became much more sexually adventurous after her separation. "Taking a portrait is like seducing someone," she told a friend, and she seems to have approached sex much as she did photography: as a way of testing herself, of having novel experiences and fighting off depression. 

By the early 1960s, Arbus's uncanny magazine work had become highly regarded in the intimate circle of New York artists and publishers. As her reputation grew, she began to receive fashion and celebrity assignments from such publications as Show and Harper's Bazaar, where her friend Marvin Israel worked as art director. Her subjects included Mae West, Marcello Mastroianni and Norman Mailer-who commented that "Giving a camera to Diane Arbus is like giving a hand grenade to a baby." She also began experimenting with a direct flash, which seemed to peel away the public faces of her subjects. This use of the flash, along with the square frame, became one of the most widely imitated features of her work. 

Three Arbus pictures were included in a 1965 exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, "Recent Acquisitions." Reaction to Arbus's portraits of nudists and female impersonators was sharply divided; workers at the museum had to come in early to wipe the spit off her photographs. Similar controversy greeted the 1967 show "New Documents," in which her disturbing portraits were given a room of their own. That show is now seen as a landmark in this history of photography, but at the time, Arbus was wary of being stereotyped as a photographer of "freaks." 

With her younger daughter away at school, Arbus moved into an artists' colony in New York, where she taught a class in photography. In her lessons, she emphasized that a picture was the product of the relationship between artist and subject: a photographer's truest art lay in coaxing a moment of revelation from a sometimes-reluctant individual. At the same time, however, Arbus had begun to take pictures of mentally retarded patients at a home in Vineland, New Jersey-subjects who were completely absorbed in themselves, whom she could never control or reach. This frustration contributed to the depression and loneliness that had long been part of Arbus's life. 

On July 26, 1971, Diane Arbus committed suicide by slashing her wrists. Her friend Marvin Israel found her two days later, lying fully clothed in her bathtub. A rumor arose that Arbus had taken pictures of herself as she lay dying, but no film was ever recovered. Because Arbus left no note or other message, the reason for her suicide remains uncertain. Her reputation has only increased since her death, due largely to a famous retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and the publication of several collections of her photographs, edited by Marvin Israel and her daughter Doon. 



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