George Koch
(circa 1998)
Advanced Photography

The Life and Times of
Diane Nemerov Arbus

    Diane Nemerov Arbus was born on March 14, 1923, in New York City. She was the daughter of Gertrude Russek and David Nemerov, the owners of a clothing store for women. Diane attended the Ethical Culture School, then the Fieldston School. After graduating she worked as a fashion artist in her parents' store. In 1941, at the age of 18, Diane married an employee named Allan Arbus. The two worked as a team, doing commercial fashion photography for a number of magazines, until they divorced in 1969.

At one point in her life, Diane took a brief photography class with a woman named Berenice Abbott. During the class, Arbus met Lisette Model, a woman from Australia who worked as a documentary photographer. She and Diane studied together from 1958 to 1960. Also, in 1960, Esquire magazine published Arbus' first photo-essay. She went on to be a freelance photographer and photography teacher.

    Elements of Arbus' later work included the use of a technique called "square format," which, along with other effects, helped her to emphasize the subject's composition. Arbus also used flash lighting to create a surrealistic effect. Her photos were quite unusual and sometimes included nudists, sideshow freaks and transvestites, all of which seemed to give the subject a certain "sympathy." The photographs never failed to elicit a rather surprised reaction from everyone who saw them.

    Diane Arbus certainly had a unique photographic style. The photos were bizarre but still believable somehow. For example, one of the pictures, from 1963, was a juxtaposition of a retired man and his wife at home--in a nudist camp. Many people say that Arbus had a sort of "direct relationship" with her subjects, as well as that she believed in a concept called "universal experience." She shot pictures in such a way that they showed a person's uniqueness and personality, rather than just how they appeared to the naked eye.

    Diane Arbus was at the height of her career in the early '70s and had a lot going for her. But one day, in 1971, she killed herself. Her motivation for taking her own life is not fully understood, though some believe it had something to do with her love life. Diane Arbus became a memory--gone, but not forgotten--and she'd changed the world of photography as people knew it.