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A Fresh Look at Diane Arbus

A new retrospective featuring an unprecedented number of the troubled photographer's images makes the case for her innovative artistry

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The exhibition catalog, Diane Arbus Revelations (Random House), offers not only the most complete selection of Arbus images ever put between covers but also a fascinating 104- page illustrated chronology of Arbus’ life, studded with excerpts from her letters and other writings. The chronology, put together by Sussman and Doon Arbus, is effectively the first authorized biography of the photographer and the first to be able to draw on her papers.

Arbus was born Diane Nemerov in 1923. Her mother, Gertrude, chose her daughter’s name, pronouncing it “Dee- Ann.” Talent was abundant in the Nemerov family, a wealthy New York clan that ran Russek’s, a fashionable Fifth Avenue department store. Diane’s older brother was Howard Nemerov, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who was named U.S. poet laureate in 1988. Her younger sister, Renée Sparkia, became a sculptor and designer. After retiring from Russek’s, their father, David Nemerov, launched a second, successful career as a painter.

Diane’s artistic and literary gifts were apparent early on. Her father encouraged her to become a painter, and she studied art in high school. At the age of 14 she fell in love with Allan Arbus, the 19-year-old nephew of one of her father’s business partners. Her parents disapproved of her infatuation, but the romance flourished in secret. Soon Diane lost interest in painting and in going to college, saying her only ambition was to become Allan’s wife. “I hated painting and I quit right after high school because I was continually told how terrific I was,” she said many years later. “I had the sense that if I was so terrific at it, it wasn’t worth doing.”

Diane and Allan were married as soon as she turned 18, in 1941, with the grudging acceptance of her family. The couple pursued a shared interest in photography, turning the bathroom of their Manhattan apartment into a part-time darkroom. David Nemerov gave them work shooting fashion photographs for Russek’s advertisements.

During World War II, Allan served as a military photographer. One of the earliest photographs in the “Revelations” show is a 1945 self-portrait Diane made for Allan while he was in the Army. Though pregnant with Doon, who would be born later that year, in the picture she is still slender, and very beautiful, with dark eyes and a wistful, otherworldly air.

After the war, the Arbuses’ career as commercial photographers took off, and soon they were working for top women’s magazines and advertising agencies. Usually Allan shot the pictures while Diane came up with clever ideas and props. Diane also took care of Doon and their second daughter, Amy, born in 1954. (Doon, now 59, became a writer, worked on several magazine projects with her mother and later published two books with photographer Richard Avedon. Amy followed in her mother’s footsteps and became a photographer.)

A photograph that Allan and Diane made for Vogue magazine of a father and son reading a newspaper was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s popular “The Family of Man” show in 1955. But both of them felt frustrated by the limitations and stresses of fashion work. Diane wanted to be an artist, not just a stylist, while Allan dreamed of becoming an actor. Their growing discontent put strain on their marriage. So did the depressive episodes that Diane suffered, similar to the despair that had periodically paralyzed her mother. In 1956 Diane quit the couple’s business in order to make photographs on her own. Allan continued to work under the name Diane & Allan Arbus, while taking acting classes and beginning a career in the theater.

Although magazines such as Life, Look and the Saturday Evening Post had created a booming market for photography, there was little interest in pictures whose sole purpose was to be a work of art, rather than to document social realities or sell products. Nevertheless, Robert Frank, William Klein and other refugees from the fashion world were pursuing their own vision of what photography could be, and a favorite approach was street photography, which discovered unexpected beauty and meaning in everyday people and places.

Several of Diane Arbus’ early photographs in the current exhibition show her trying out her own version of street photography. But she had not yet found her subject. A turning point came when she took a class with the Viennese-born photographer Lisette Model at New York City’s NewSchool.

“She came to me and said, ‘I can’t photograph,’ ” Model later told Doon Arbus. “And I said, ‘Why not?’ And she said, ‘Because what I want to photograph, I can’t photograph.’ ” Model told Diane to go home and figure out what it was she really wanted to take pictures of. “And the next session she came to me and she said, ‘I want to photograph what is evil.’ And that was it,” Model said.

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