The Diane Arbus Centennial

Yow! I almost found out too late that today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Diane Arbus (Diane Nemerov (1923-1971)! It’s pronounced “Dee-ann”, by the way.

It’s rare for us to write about still photographers on this blog (I think Cindy Sherman and Weegee may be the only ones to date, not counting Stanley Kubrick, who went on to other things) but it ought to be obvious why Arbus would be important to someone of my proclivities and we have mentioned her several times on this blog, for she photographed Hubert’s Dime Museum, as well as subjects at Coney Island, and “Jewish Giant” Eddie Carmel.

The “Born Different” were frequently her subjects, whether they worked in the freak show or not, and she also was fond of strippers and burlesque dancers, and what we now call trans people, who were just as marginalized as the other two groups back in the day (not that they aren’t now). She was also drawn to what might be called the “freak adjacent”, the types of characters that John Waters put in his movies — I think of women in terrifying make-up with their hair in curlers, that kind of thing. I’ve also always loved that, much like Walker Evans and Marguerite Bourke-White, she did a study of poor Southern sharecroppers (my dad’s people). Like the Born Different, those folks were just one life-choice away from being a carny. But aren’t we all? And that’s a window into why people love her. She didn’t sneak in like a thief in the night and steal snaps of these people through some peep hole. We’re not gawking at these subjects for cheap thrills. She got us close so we could get to know them. We’re in their kitchens and on their porches. They’re in dialogue somehow with us. Their gaze may be angry or accusing, but they know they’re being looked at, and they’re looking right back. It’s more like an exchange than an exploitation.

Like her fellow Russian Gogol, Arbus was drawn to the “Lower Depths”, but unlike him she was not of them. Her folks were wealthy. They fled the USSR after the Revolution, moved to New York and opened a department store. Their bucks enabled many of her family to pursue artistic interests. (The most notable among them besides Diane was her brother Howard Nemerov, the poet). In 1941 she married Allan Arbus, and for years they worked as a team of jobbing commercial photographers (he’d been a photographer for the army signal corps during WWII). The pair separated in 1959, and divorced in 1969, although they remained close until the end and even shared a dark room. Allan later became an actor, and is best remembered for playing the army psychiatrist Dr. Sidney Freedman on the tv sitcom M*A*S*H. Because the world is just as crazy as that.

Sadly, Diane Arbus ended her life prematurely at the age of 48 at her flat in New York’s Westbeth Center with a double assault: barbiturates and slashed wrists. Her motivations seem to have been multiple: long term depression, anxiety about her growing success and upcoming exhibitions, and dissatisfaction with a series she had done on mentally retarded people, among them. Near her body she had placed her diary, with the words “Last Supper” written by the day, a message as enigmatic and mysterious as her photographs.