Diane Arbus is known as the photographer of freaks because her subjects are people whose normality seems ugly or surreal. She was born Diane Nemerov on March 14, 1923 in New York to a wealthy Jewish family. Her father is David Nemerov, a hard working son of a Russian immigrant. Her mother Gertrude Russek Nemerov is the daughter of the owner of a fur store. Her parents lived in New York City where they owned a famous Fifth Avenue department store which they named Russek’s Department Store. The store specializes in selling fur and women’s clothing.
Diane was raised a privileged child. Because of her parents’ wealth, she was insulated from the effects of the Great Depression. She was raised together with her two siblings in a large apartment located in Central Park West and Park Avenue. She attended a prep school, the Fieldston School for Ethical Culture. She then married her childhood sweetheart Allan Arbus in 1941, when she was at the age of eighteen.
She met Allan, who was an employee in the advertising department of her parents’ store when she was thirteen. They had two children named Doon, who was born in 1945 who became a writer and Amy, born in 1954, who followed the footsteps of her mother and became a famous photographer.
The Arbus couple both got interested in photography. In 1941, they visited the gallery of Alfred Stieglitz and many other famous photographers like Eugene Atget and Paul Strand. It is where Diane was inspired by the works of some of the famous photographers. They were then employed by Diane’s father to take photographs for the advertisement of their department store. During the World War Two, Diane’s husband, Allan became a photographer for the US Army Signal Corps.
After the war in 1946, the Arbuses started a commercial photography business which they called Diane & Allan Arbus. Diane is the stylist/art director while Allan is the photographer. Allan gave Diane her first camera, and both agreed to took equal credit on their photos. Even though they both hated the fashion world, they contributed to different fashion magazines such as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Flamour and Seventeen. Their photograph of a father and son reading a newspaper was also included in the curator Edward Steichen’s massive Family of Man exhibition which was displayed at the Museum of Modern Art. Their family business only lasted for ten years when Diane decided to leave the fashion business to pursue her own personal interest.
Diane Arbus then studied photography with Berenice Abbott and later on with Lisette Model who changed her photographic methods and style. In 1959, she slowly became famous and started taking photographs for Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar and The Sunday Times Magazine. She then switched from a 35mm Nikon camera to a twin-lens reflex Rplleiflex camera which enabled her to produce more detailed square images.
In 1967, she had her first major exhibition of her photographs which entitled New Documents at the Museum of Modern Art. This gallery also featured the works of other famous photographers such as Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander.
Arbus died on July 26, 1971 in her home at Westbeth Artists Community in New York City when she took her own life after ingesting barbiturates and slashing her wrist with a razor. It was said that she suffered from depression and may have been made worse by symptoms of hepatitis.