Bring back some good or bad memories


May 12, 2012

Cult Portrait Photographer of Freaks, Eccentrics: Black and White Square Portrait Photographs by Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus (1923-1971) was an American photographer and writer noted for black-and-white square photographs of "deviant and marginal people (dwarfs, giants, transgender people, nudists, circus performers) or of people whose normality seems ugly or surreal." A friend said that Arbus said that she was "afraid... that she would be known simply as 'the photographer of freaks'"; however, that phrase has been used repeatedly to describe her.

Although highly praised by some, her portrait art also attracted considerable criticism from a number of art critics, notably Susan Sontag (1933-2004). In 1971, at the age of 48, Arbus took her own life, thus inadvertently adding herself (in the minds of her critics) to the category of damaged people that appeared in her photos. Even so, a growing consensus now sees her as a cult figure of her generation and ranks her among the best portrait artists of the 1960s.

Arbus experienced "depressive episodes" during her life similar to those experienced by her mother, and the episodes may have been made worse by symptoms of hepatitis. Arbus wrote in 1968, "I go up and down a lot", and her ex-husband noted that she had "violent changes of mood". On July 26, 1971, while living at Westbeth Artists Community in New York City, Arbus took her own life by ingesting barbiturates and slashing her wrists with a razor. She wrote the words "Last Supper" in her diary and placed her appointment book on the stairs leading up to the bathroom. Marvin Israel found her body in the bathtub two days later; she was 48 years old. Photographer Joel Meyerowitz told journalist, Arthur Lubow, "If she was doing the kind of work she was doing and photography wasn’t enough to keep her alive, what hope did we have?”"


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