Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer

Lubow, A. (2016) Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer. Great Britain: Jonathan Cape (Part of Penguin Random House group)

Diane Arbus is an American photographer, born on the 14th March 1923, she died on the 26th July 1971 after taking an overdose of barbituates and slashing her wrists.

One of the most talented photographers of her generation, her peers were people like Robert Franks, Richard Avedon, she is known for her photographs of people who were on the margins of society. Sideshow freaks, nudists, transgender people (although this was before the term was coined), and others who were outside what was thought normal.

Arbus sought out the unusual, the ugly, the different in her subjects.

All through her career Diane Arbus struggled, never making enough money to be comfortable, she found herself resorting to undertaking photographic assignments in order to be able to keep her head above water and provide for her two daughters Doon and Amy.

Even so, she was able to find the time and opportunities to take the photos that she wanted.

Arbus was never totally satisfied with her work and never gave herself the credit she deserved, and that others gave her.

Born into the Nemerov family, who owned Russek’s department store on Fifth Avenue, she grew up unaffected by the Great Depression that was going on at the time. In 1941 she married her childhood sweetheart Allan Arbus, and they worked together as fashion photographers, Allan being the photographer with Diane assisting him during shoots. Together they travelled around the world on assignments.

Eventually Allan gave up photography and turned to acting, being known for his role as Dr. Sidney Freedman, a psychiatrist, in the hit US series M.A.S.H.

While Allan turned to acting, Diane became the photographer.

Lubow’s book paints a picture of a woman who struggled throughout her life. Never fully believing in her success and just managing to keep things together.

Arbus had many friends and acquaintances, both male and female, some of which became lovers. Her relationships with some male friends being complex, especially, when they became involved with other people and even married.

Although Diane Arbus never got the recognition she deserved while alive, posthumously she achieved it. One of her photographs sold for over $750,000 some time after her death.

The book is an interesting insight into Arbus, her life, her struggles and even her thought processes at times.

It’s also not an easy or quick read, at over 730 pages, including acknowledgments and source citations.

Having finished the book, the thing that I take away from it the most is that, no matter how talented the photographer, whether amateur or professional, this field can be a struggle to be successful. It is also possible to be blind to your abilities and to have a lack of faith in yourself, despite what others tell you.

Arbus’ story also shows that you should always strive to do the work that you want, even if you have to do other things along the way.

Finally, it also shows just how important it is to be able to look at the world and see the beauty and fascinating in things that society would shy away from normally.

5 thoughts on “Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer”

  1. That’s a great review Jenna. Having recently finished the book I am aware that I could not have summarised it as neatly as you have.

    A truly wonderful book and insight into Arbus’ inner being.


  2. There is an exhibition of her work on at The Barbican until early September. I’m in London on the 24th July, and so will take the opportunity to take a look. Thanks for the review.



      1. I need to figure out a way to have a few days in London when I can snatch some time to go and look at various exhibitions. I was there yesterday right by the Tate but didn’t have time to go in and have a look around.

        Have had feedback from my tutor. Trying to digest it but we discussed some stuff out Arbus which I need to put proper responses to.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s