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Meet Diane Arbus - A Journey into the Surreal

At first glance Diane Arbus might seem like an odd role model.  To many she is simply a photographer of freaks. Her name is usually associated with the marginal and with what some call the “deviant.” Author Norman Mailer once said “giving a camera to Diane Arbus is like putting a live grenade in the hands of a child.” She struggled with depression for most her life and committed suicide in 1971 at the age of 48. She might not be the best example of a nice Jewish girl, but she is my choice for Women’s History Month.

To understand my fascination with the life of Diane Arbus, it would probably help to know a bit about me. I am a storyteller. A few years ago, I moved beyond the medium of words and took to the camera. Through the camera, I am able to follow Arbus’s words of wisdom that “my favorite thing is to go where I’ve never been.” The camera allows me access to aspects of our world and humanity I had never imagined exploring.

What inspires me most about Diane Arbus is how she, like I, had to push through fears.  Used correctly, the camera is a cloak of invisibility. It allows the photographer to move undedicated; it is a passport to whatever foreign experience you choose. Being fearless with the camera did not come naturally to Arbus, just as it has not come naturally to me. Like her, I use the adrenaline of fear to push into crowds, to shoot closer, and to get the shot I need. And, like her, I am well aware that “I never have taken a picture I’ve intended. They’re always better or worse.” Freedom comes from allowing yourself to be in the moment.

Diane Arbus knocked down barriers. She demonstrated that there was room for women in the rough and tumble world of photography. Her early work with photography followed traditional gender roles. Her then husband, Allan, was behind the camera and initially had the technical skills. She was the one with the eye for style. As time went on, her work progressed beyond this binary relationship. She was not drawn to safe scenes and that was okay. She was a storyteller, and she found her inspiration in the most unusual of places like insane asylums and nudist camps.

Michael Kimmelman wrote that her most striking 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." Diane Arbus continues to shape the world of photography more than 40 years after her death. She shows me a way to be a creative troublemaker, to be true to oneself, and to break down boundaries. 

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"Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey 1967" by Diane Arbus
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Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey 1967 a notable photograph by Diane Arbus (1923 – 1971).

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How to cite this page

Rozensky, Jordyn. "Meet Diane Arbus - A Journey into the Surreal ." 15 March 2013. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 20, 2019) <>.


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