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Nova, October 1969 © 1969 The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC

From High Fashion to Documenting Everyday Life

Arbus began her career as a commercial photographer. She received her first camera from her husband, Allan Arbus, whom she married when she was just eighteen. The young couple owned a successful photo studio in New York, and their everyday work regularly appeared in fashion magazines like Glamour. Diane’s duty was to plan the concept, style, and composition of each frame. Allan stood behind the camera. Diane learned from her husband how to develop film and prepare negatives in a “dark room,” which at that time was the young couple’s bathroom.

Alongside this work, Diane began taking her own pictures with a 35 mm Nikon camera, immortalizing people she met on the street. She worked with her husband from 1941 through 1956, when she quit her day job (and, two years later, her husband too) in order to devote herself completely to her art. Her income was still provided by magazine editors, though they now commissioned illustrative materials for interviews and asked her to create documentary photo essays. And it is precisely this time period, when Arbus was working as an independent photo artist, that is displayed at the exhibit on view in Vilnius. Her creative zenith continued until 1971, when, at forty-eight years of age, the internationally acclaimed photographer and mother of two grown daughters took her own life after a lengthy battle with depression. 

Freak Show?

Looking at Arbus’s photographs in the exhibit, my first impression was a sour queasiness. All sorts of “freaks” stare out from the portraits: transvestites, nudists, dwarfs, giants, and the mentally ill. Even a pair of identical twins look like an anomaly in this context. “What kind of circus troupe is this?” I involuntarily want to ask. Yet this is only the surface layer. A desire to dig beneath the surface was one of the driving forces in Arbus’s work. Her portraits accent a person’s façade—bodies, costumes, status—and precisely with these frontal portrayals she gives viewers the chance to dig through the surface.

Though she is considered part of the documentary street photography scene that flourished in the 1960s, Arbus differs from her contemporaries because she used classical portrait principles. Unlike moments caught in movement, her frame compositions are not accidental.  Arbus was demanding toward her subjects, composing them in a specific way and making them pose without moving. She wanted to tell intimate stories that would dig beneath the shell of an individual. But in order for this to be understood, you must assemble the necessary accents. I will never forget the photograph of a giant who, standing on his feet, is squeezed into the room of a standard-model apartment, or, along with it, the photograph of a decorated Christmas tree about a half meter too high, its bent tip touching the ceiling.