Home Features Diane Arbus: the centenary of the artist’s birth

Diane Arbus: the centenary of the artist’s birth


Diane Arbus was born on March 14th 1923. Next Tuesday, March 14th 2023, will mark the centenary of her birth.

Diane (pronounced Dee-ann) Arbus was one of the 20th Century’s most significant and controversial photographers. Her black and white portraits of people on the fringes of New York society are both unconventional and unsettling. In its review of a 2019 exhibition of her work at the Hayward Gallery in London, The Economist said: “She captured what many viewed as the ‘freaks’ of her time – or, as Susan Sonntag classified them, ‘assorted monsters and borderline cases’”.

Diane Arbus in 1971, photograph from ‘Diane Arbus, Portrait of a Photographer’ by Arthur Lubow, HarperCollins

A polarising figure

In many of her photographs, the subject stares directly at the camera. They might be sitting in a dimly lit bedroom or dressing room, or wandering the Boardwalk at Coney Island. Some viewed her approach as voyeurism. But these were not candid photos of strangers on the street. Often, these were people she knew well, with whom she had built a relationship. Nevertheless, many found them offensive:

Arbus’s work was exhibited in only a few museums during her lifetime and when it was, it polarised opinion. Many praised the beauty of her compositions and her inclusive approach to human identity. But others, such as Sonntag, condemned her work as ‘anti-humanist’ and exploitative. In 1965, when some of Arbus’s photographs were shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a gallery worker used to wipe the saliva off the pictures each morning — viewers had spat on them the day before in disgust. ‘Her work shows people who are pathetic, pitiable, as well as repulsive, but it does not arouse any compassionate feelings’ Sontag thought.

Prospero Column: Diane Arbus and lives of other, Economist, Feb 26th 2019
Diane Arbus at a workshop in Israel in 1967, photograph from ‘Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer’ by Arthur Lubow, HarperCollins

Diane Arbus at the Met Breuer

I visited an exhibition of her work at the Met Breuer in 2016. It was a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, before closing in 2020. Entitled ‘Diane Arbus: In The Beginning’ it was an exhibition of her early photography. Here is a brief YouTube clip of the curator, introducing the exhibit. It features several examples of her photographs.

I found the photographs unlike any I had seen before, and in many cases, disturbing. As a collection they revealed a slice of society usually unexplored or even hidden. Her photography placed them front and center. Hence, to my mind, the jarring nature of the exhibition. 

Here is another, more extensive video-article describing her work. The narrator takes a sympathetic and appreciative stance to Arbus’s photography

A Diane Arbus biography

Arbus lived a life that was in part privileged and in part tragic. She committed suicide in 1971, taking an overdose of barbiturates and cutting her wrists. For those interested in learning more, her biography ‘Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer’ by Arthur Lubow provides a detailed account of her turbulent life.

Diane Arbus biography

Next Tuesday is an opportunity to reflect on her remarkable body of work, and the impact she made on the field of photography.

How do you view the photography of Diane Arbus? Have you ever seen her work exhibited? What do you think we can learn from her approach? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Read more from Keith James


  1. As I tend to take ‘quirky’ photos, I admire Diane Arbus’ split-second response to ‘quirky’ moments, though the quirks she responded to tend to have been what you might call ‘warped’ and weird moments.

    But that makes her photos unlike anyone else’s. She seems to be saying “look at THIS for weirdness”. Quite a change from pictorialism.

  2. Thanks for this; you do a great job summarizing the complexities of the ‘Arbus Issue’, and in a very small space.

    My own reaction — some of the controversial photos, labelled as ‘freaks’ back then, are today just a part of LBGT culture. The women she’d hang out with in the sixties were still to be seen in the women’s bars in the eighties. Today, I can look at some of her photos as showing the pathos of a group marginalized by society. Pathos — isn’t that one of the emotions to be evoked in tragic theatre? Is that what Arbus was doing?

    It’s always hard for me to place Sontag’s views. As a lesbian herself, I wonder whether she might have been too close to the issues to be objective.

    A hundred years later, Arbus is still controversial. Does that mean she touched somethin deep within us?

    • The boy with the hand grenade – LBGT..? I wouldn’t have thought so.

      The description on the aboutphotography.blog says: “..When we look at the contact sheet we can see she took plenty of “normal” photographs of the kid in the park smiling and playing around. However, when it came to picking the final image she chose the most expressive one.”

      And the boy himself apparently later said: “She catches me in a moment of exasperation. It’s true, I was exasperated. My parents had divorced and there was a general feeling of loneliness, a sense of being abandoned. I was just exploding. She saw that and it’s like…commiseration. She captured the loneliness of everyone. It’s all people who want to connect but don’t know how to connect. And I think that’s how she felt about herself. She felt damaged and she hoped that by wallowing in that feeling, through photography, she could transcend herself.”

      Like many photographers, she picked and chose. And chose the ‘weirdest’ of her shots to show that pervasive ‘loneliness’ and the ‘outlier’ aspect. (If you look at Cartier-Bresson’s contact sheets you’ll see that he took many, many more shots than the much-reputed single ‘decisive moment’ ..but the shots generally chosen for publication do consist of a decisive moment, or the ‘best-framed’ moment. Same with Arbus. Same with pretty much anyone who exhibits their photos.)

      We may call hers ‘poignant’, or ‘misfits’, and there’s the weird and unnatural ‘caught-in-the-headlights’ look to so many of them, using that big flashgun like ‘mugger-with-a-flash’ Bruce Gilden (ugh).

      I think the boy with the hand grenade had it right: “..she captured the loneliness of everyone”.

      • LGBT was only one opf the kinds of pic she took, as you so rightly point out. Nonetheless, disturbing to some.

  3. I was never a Diane Arbus fan. To me, a lot of her images seemed to just be extreme subjects versus succeed on the quality of the image. However, she can do her own thing and I do not have to look at them. I also did not like the harsh flash look but again to each his/her own.

  4. At some point, I felt I “should” learn about her; I checked out the Aperture monograph, read the transcript of her words, looked through the photos as much as I could take. Big world; those who respect her work are welcome to do so; obviously there’s something there, but it’s beyond my ken.

    Box checked; time to move on to women photographers I can respect and would like to learn from.

  5. Well, if your photo books are still in print more than 40 years after your death you must have done something right… I am not intimately familiar with her work (although I will make an effort after this reminder article) but her best known work is iconic in my opinion and still very much relevant today. To each his own.

    • As you say. But – when I was working, Steve Weinberg was on the same floor, along with two “Math Nobels” (Abel Prize), I knew pretty quickly when I was out of my depth!

      I think the same might be true in the case of Arbus; it may be that I’m not at a level where can understand her work.

  6. Here are a couple of Mike Johnston’s centenary posts about Diane Arbus – on ‘The Online Photographer’ – which you may find interesting:



    • Thanks David – Mike, our editor passed the first of these along to me. I had not seen the second though. Cheers, Keith

  7. Thanks for this reminder about Diane Arbus. I think art should have some “grit” for it to make an impact and her work certainly does.

    I used to think that she had photographed the cover of the Doors album “Strange Days” which feels like it could be her work, but discovered more recently that it was Joel Brodsky’s work. Brodsky worked with The Doors and took the well-known image of Jim Morrison. He also shot some 400 odd album covers over his career.

    • Thanks Le Chef, I checked out Brodsky’s work – what a phenomenal set of subjects and photographs. Thanks for the suggestion. Cheers, Keith


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