Diane Arbus, Triplets in their bedroom, N.J., 1963
© The Estate of Diane Arbus

Long before Diane Arbus’s suicide in July 1971, her photographs inspired—incited, even—a visceral response for those who cared to look. Much of this has been recorded in writing. In the intervening half century, her photographs have proved to be immune to the hundreds of thousands of words that surround them, their mystery undiminished. So a few more, offered here, are unlikely to do harm.

This fall we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Arbus’s posthumous MoMA retrospective, and that of the Aperture monograph published on the occasion. The book almost didn’t happen (see below), although it was an immediate (and lasting) success. For those who missed the similarly iconic 1972 exhibition will be revisited in September at David Zwirner in New York. Aperture also welcomes a new edition of Diane Arbus Revelations to our book list, which you can use to build your own repertoire of Arbus anecdotes. Here are a few of my favorites:

Diane Arbus, Woman with a veil on Fifth Avenue, N.Y.C, 1968

Shockingly Direct

Arbus was the original research assistant for From the Picture Press, an exhibition that opened at MoMA in January 1973, nine days after the close of her retrospective. As John Szarkowski, director of MoMA’s photography department (and curator of both exhibitions) recognized, these tabloid pictures clearly resonated with Arbus’s photographic sensibility. He could have been speaking of her when he observed this in the press release for From the Picture Press: “As images, the photographs are shockingly direct, and at the same time, mysteriously elliptical and fragmentary, reproducing the texture and flavor of experience without explaining its meaning. They wear the aspect of fact, prove nothing, and ask the best of questions.” 

Diane Arbus, Boy with a straw hat waiting to march in a pro-war parade, N.Y.C, 1967

She Was Always an Artist

The debate surrounding photography’s artistic status can be tiresome—and arguably settled since the late nineteenth century. Regarding Arbus’s photographs, Szarkowski admired that “all the fanciness had been stripped away and all that was left was the marvelous clear airless experience of life, absolutely without […] any concern for art.” Although he went on to clarify, “Of course, that’s not really true. She was always an artist, and she knew she was an artist; her way of being an artist was to conceal that fact as fully as she could from us when we looked at the pictures.” The presence of her Boy with a straw hat waiting to march in a pro-war parade, N.Y.C. (1967) on the cover of Artforum in May 1971 (the first time a photograph appeared in the magazine), suggests the editors grasped the significance of her achievement. 

Stephen Frank, Diane Arbus during a class at the Rhode Island School of Design, 1970

The Overwhelming Sensation

On the subject of art world validation, in July 1972 Diane Arbus was the first photographer to have work exhibited at the Venice Biennale. New York Times critic Hilton Kramer wrote of her display that summer: “… a portfolio of 10 enormous photographs has proved to be the overwhelming sensation of the American Pavilion. If one’s natural tendency is to be skeptical about legend, it must be said that all suspicion vanishes in the presence of the Arbus work, which is extremely powerful and very strange. It is strange in an unexpected way, however. It is usually said of Miss Arbus that she specialized in freaks, and it is certainly true that her work rejects our customary notions of social normality. It rejects them in two ways—first and foremost, by dwelling on subjects (transvestites, nudists, giants, identical twins) that exist on the margin of the social norm, and then also by dealing with conventional subjects (suburbia, for example) as if they were bizarre.” This and many other key reviews are newly gathered and available in Diane Arbus Documents, which will be published by David Zwirner Books and Fraenkel Gallery this fall.

Cover of Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph

An Immediate Success

Aperture did not originally intended to publish the book accompanying MoMA’s exhibition. It was perceived to be a tremendous risk—a quaint perspective in hindsight, with nearly four hundred thousand copies sold—but the relationship was confirmed in August 1972, three months before the opening. The book was an immediate success, and a reprint was underway within weeks of the exhibition opening. Upon receiving his copy, Peter Bunnell (who had recently joined the faculty at Princeton University after working as a curator at MoMA, and before that at Aperture) wrote to Michael Hoffman, Aperture’s executive director: “Just a note to thank you for the Arbus monograph. I know only something of what it took to get it out, but regardless I want you to know how much one reader and friend of Diane’s appreciated having it. It is a superb book…”

Diane Arbus, Mrs. Gladys ‘Mitzi’ Ulrich with the baby, Sam, a stump-tailed macaque monkey, North Bergen, N.J., 1971; from Diane Arbus: A box of ten photographs (Aperture/Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2018)
All photographs © The Estate of Diane Arbus

Another Image

Did you know there used to be another image in Arbus’s Aperture monograph? In the very first printing of the very first edition there was a photograph of two young women wearing matching trench coats in Central Park. Their father objected to their inclusion and the page was subsequently removed, replaced by one of the most recent images in the book, a woman with her baby monkey