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Photography Masters - Diane Arbus
Sunday Magazine

Photography Masters - Diane Arbus

Siddharth S. Kumar

Siddharth S. Kumar

Born in 1923 to rich Jewish Russian immigrants who lived in New York and owned a Fifth Avenue Department Store, Diane Arbus had a radical worldview of the subjects that she photographed which included members of the LGBTQ community, strippers, carnival performers, nudists, dwarves, children, mothers, couples, elderly people, and middle-class families.

Unfortunately, suffering from depression, she took her own life when she was just 48. After her death, Arbus’ daughter wrote about her mother, ‘She was determined to reveal what others had been taught to turn their backs on.’

During her lifetime Arbus was a much misunderstood artist, as her images evoked uncomfortable reactions that mirrored our deepest fears and closely held personal wishes.

Known as Diane Nemerov before marriage, she had fallen in love with Allan Arbus, an advertising and fashion photographer while she was just 14, marrying him at 18. They then started a photography firm which became quite successful, with photographs appearing in magazines, namely, Vogue.

Photography Masters - Diane Arbus
A Young Man in Curlers at Home on West 20th Street, NYC, 1966. This portrait explores Arbus’ interest in gender and identity. In this photo of a young man the key point of interest is in the stark contrast between the masculine and feminine elements.

Subsequently she branched off on her own to further her philosophy of art, taking photographs of people she found in seedy hotels, public parks, a morgue and other various locales in New York. These stark images had a raw quality, being published in Esquire and showcasing Arbus as a photographer with an unusual vision.

Even in her mid-30s, Diane Arbus had established a reputation of her own participating in shows at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, among other places. In a short span (1962-70) Arbus produced an astonishing range of work, most of which was appreciated after her untimely death in 1971. These included: Child withToy Hand Grenade in Central Park, Teenage Couple on Hudson Street, Triplets in Their Bedroom, A Young Brooklyn Family Going for a Sunday Outing, A Young Man in Curlers at Home on West 20th Street, Boy With a Straw Hat Waiting to March in a Pro-War Parade, Identical Twins, A Naked Man Being a Woman, A Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents in The Bronx…

Photography Masters - Diane Arbus
Identical twins, Roselle, NJ, 1967. In this photo of the twins the girls look identical in every way except for their facial expression which shows the difference in their personality & identity.

For a number of years, her signature photographs were well received by popular magazine editors. After her Esquire photo essay, she published more than 250 pictures in Harper’s Bazaar, the Sunday Times Magazine of London and more than a dozen other magazines, and generated hundreds of additional pictures that were assigned but went unpublished.

Decades after her death, Arbus has been rediscovered by a new generation who are coming to terms with the significance of Arbus’ compelling, unsettling images, with a photography exhibition curator commenting, ’She was a great humanist photographer who was at the forefront of what has become recognized as a new kind of photographic art.’

Jeff Rosenheim, the Metropolitan’s associate curator of photography, once quipped, ‘Her work implicates you and the ethics of vision itself. Our license to have that experience of viewing another person is changed and challenged, supported and enriched. I firmly believe this might be the most important single-artist photography exhibition our museum will ever do.’

Photography Masters - Diane Arbus
Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, NYC, 1970. This photo uses reference points (the parents and the room) to convey the scale of the Jewish giant (Eddie Carmel) who towered at 8”9’.

Without doubt, Diane Arbus can be termed as one of the most original and influential photographers of the twentieth century. In 1963 and 1966 she was awarded John Simon Guggenheim Fellowships and her work was the focus of New Documents, John Szarkowski’s landmark exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in 1967. Her work was selected a year after her passing away, for inclusion in the Venice Biennale, the first time any photographer had been so honoured.

Over the decades, major retrospectives of her work have travelled far and wide-- United States, Canada, Europe, Berlin, Amsterdam, London…A few years back, the Smithsonian American Art Museum hosted Diane Arbus: A box of ten photographs, ‘an exhibition tracing the history of the portfolio that established the foundation for Arbus’s posthumous career, ushering in photography’s acceptance to the realm of “serious” art’.

Arbus’ mysterious aura is still unfolding. As she herself said long ago, ‘I’m very little drawn to photographing people that are known or even subjects that are known. They fascinate me when I’ve barely heard of them…I work from awkwardness. By that I mean I don’t like to arrange things. If I stand in front of something, instead of arranging it, I arrange myself.’

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Siddharth Kumar, is the Co-Founder & Lead Photographer SIDART Photography, a professional photography venture focusing on weddings, portraiture and commercial photography. After an 8-year stint in an MNC, he decided to pursue his passion for photography and music. In 2019, he was awarded Certificate of Honorable Mention by International Photography Awards (IPA), Los Angeles. In 2014, he won the First Prize at the International Photography Competition organized by Mindshare Worldwide. He holds a Grade 8 Certificate in Piano Performance from Trinity College London.