Wednesday, October 4, 2017


by Vickie Martin Conison

Born Diane Nemerov in 1923 – her name was pronounced Dee-Ann. She had a sister and a brother, and the three formed a trio of sibling artists.
Her grandparents founded Russek’s Department Store on Fifth Avenue in New York and Brooklyn. The store specialized in furs and upscale women's collections. In fact, it was whispered it was where millionaires shopped for their "kept women". The family lived on the 11th floor of San Remo, which overlooked Central Park West. As a child she would stand on the ledge of the apartment until her mother pulled her back. Maybe this is an early glimpse into her depressions and suicidal thoughts that plagued her life. Later on, she said "I wanted to see if I could do it."

When her father, David Nemerov, retired, he pursued a career in painting.
Her younger sister, Renee Sparkia Brown, was a sculptor and designer. (Her first husband created the Empire State Building illuminated panels depicting the 7 wonders of the world, with the 8th wonder – the Empire State Building. These 5’ x 7’ crystal resin and stained glass panels were installed in the lobby in 1963.)
Her brother, Howard Nemerov, was a Pulitzer Prize winning poet and the United State Poet Laureate TWICE! His son is a Professor of Art at Stanford University.
 At age 14 she fell in love with Allan Arbus (19 at the time). While she studied painting in high school, she lost interest in painting and said her only ambition was to be David’s wife.
“I hated painting and I quit right after high school because I was continually told how terrific I was. I had the sense that if I was so terrific at it, it wasn’t worth doing.”
They eventually married and together pursued a career in photography, turning their bathroom in Manhatten into a part-time darkroom. Her father gave them work shooting fashion for Russek’s.
Allan and Diane
Allan was trained as a military photographer in WWII. Eventually, their photography business took off, shooting for magazines like  Vogue  and Harper’s Bazaar. But, it appears as if Allan was the photographer and Diane was the stylist.
But Diane wanted to be an artist, not a stylist. Allan wanted to be an actor, not a photographer. During this time, Diane suffered from several depressive episodes. They had two daughters, Doon (who later published two books with Richard Avendon) and Amy, who is a photographer and a teacher, as well as a writer.
Diane’s turning point came by taking a class at the New School in New York with Lisette Model.
“I always thought of photography as a naughty thing to do – that was one of my favorite tings about it, and when I first did it, I felt very perverse.”
She began taking photographs of the seamier side of New York. As a child, she endlessly rode the subways and observe she she called the "freaks of everyday life".  She once took a bus to the shore in New Jersey to photograph a dead beached whale.
1959, the Arbuses separated. Also that year, Diane had her first magazine assignment for Esquire – that included photographs of a sideshow performers.

She began prowling the streets of New York at night. Soon she became a regular at Hubert's Freak Museum.
When she changed to a 2 1/4 format camera (in 1962)  and her pictures became sharper and more detailed. She said she wanted “to see the difference between flesh and material, the densities of different kinds of things: air and water and shiny.”
She was known for having intense relationships with her subjects. In fact, she spent 10 years with Eddie Carmel, whom she called the Jewish giant, before she captured the photograph she had been looking for! Some of the circus performers she photographed appeared in her images for 10 years!
The Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents, Bronx 1970 ©Diane Arbus estate

The art-world began to see Arbus’ pictures as more than journalism. In 1967, 32 of her photographs were chosen by MOMA for an exhibition.

With her growing fame, it is understandable people became a little wary of being photographed by someone that had been dubbed “the wizard of odds”.  At this time, Allan, who she remained close to, moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting full time.  Do you know his most famous role?
Allan as Dr. Signey Freedman
Yes, he played the psychiatrist on MASH!
Ahead of the times,  Diane had a plan to sell limited editions of 10 of her photographs in a clear box that doubled as a frame for $1,000 per set.While only four sets sold, one set was sold to the artist Jasper Johns and two sets to photographer Richard Avendon!  (one set recently sold for $553,000).
A Young Man in Curlers at Home on West 20th St. NYC 1967
In 1971 she was chosen to represent the United States in the 1972 Venice  Biennale – the FIRST American photorapher to be so honored.
Unfortunately, in 1971 she was ovewhelmed by what she called “the blues”. On July 26, she took barbituates and slit her wrists and was found in her West Village apartment two days later.
Identical Twins 1967
Circus Performer
She was also the subject of a movie starring Nicole Kidman - FUR, An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2006)

Some of my favorite quotes:
“Love involves a peculiar unfathomable combination of understanding and misunderstanding.”
“A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.”
“The world can only be grasped by action, not by contemplation. The hand is the cutting edge of the mind.”
What do you think of Diane Arbus and her photographs? I think a series about the entire family on PBS - or on American Masters - would be so interesting!

No comments:

Post a Comment