Ten works by Diane Arbus are featured in Venice Biennale
April 19, 1972
Photographer Diane Arbus got her start in fashion photography in the 1940s. However, by the time ten of her works were chosen for the Venice Biennale on April 19, 1972, a year after her death, she was much better known for her photographs of people on society's margins.
Born Diane Nemerov in New York City in 1923 and educated at the Ethical Culture School, she married photographer Allan Arbus when she was 18. In collaboration with her husband, who took care of the technical aspects while she styled the photo shoots, she became a successful fashion photographer. In the late 1950s, tired of the fashion world, Arbus turned her camera to social outcasts and misfits. Her disturbing images included photos of "freaks," carnival performers, twins, children, nudists and the residents of a home for retarded women. Arbus's work was distinctive in portraying her subjects looking directly at the camera, a pose that made them appear vulnerable but which was tempered with what a critic called "an extraordinary candor and sympathy."
Arbus's career took off when Esquire magazine published six of her photos in a special July 1960 issue on New York City. Over the next eleven years, Arbus published over 250 photographs in more than seventy magazine articles. Her work appeared in Harper's Bazaar, New York, Essence, Sports Illustrated, the Saturday Evening Post, the New York Times, and the (London) Sunday Times Magazine. Unusually for a photographer, Arbus was able to combine commercial success in magazines with success as an independent artist. Beginning in 1965, she had several shows at the Museum of Modern Art. She was also awarded two Guggenheim fellowships, in 1963 and 1966.
Losing a long-standing battle with depression, Arbus committed suicide on July 26, 1971. In the wake of her death, however, her fame grew. A review of her exhibit at the Venice Biennale called her photos "extremely powerful and very strange." The reviewer concluded that the ten photos on display were "enough to make us eager to see the full range of this amazing camera artist." After the Biennale, a major retrospective of her work was mounted by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1972.
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art mounted the first major overview of her work since the early 1970s in Fall, 2003. The exhibit also appeared at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in Spring 2005. Michael Kimmelman's review of the New York exhibit observed that Arbus's most memorable work "was all about heart – a ferocious audacious heart. It transformed the art of photography ... and it lent a fresh dignity to the forgotten and neglected people in whom she invested so much of herself."
Arbus's estate presented the artist's complete personal and professional archive to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in December 2007.
To learn more about Diane Arbus, visit Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.
Sources: Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 58-61; Patricia Bosworth, Diane Arbus: A Biography (New York, 1984); New York Times, August 22, 1971, April 20, 1972, June 17, 1972, March 11, 2005, December 18, 2007.