Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus played one season of cosmic baseball.
Official Cosmic Record

Flower girl at a wedding

Diane Arbus, age 5

Arbus, age 15

Identical twins, 1967

Diane & Allan Arbus

Husband & wife in the woods
at a nudist camp, 1963

Teenage couple on Hudson Street
N.Y.C., 1963

Child with toy hand grenade
in Central Park, NYC, 1962

Photo of Arbus by Stephen Frank, 1970


American Photographer

Substance on the Edge

By the time Diane Arbus took her own life in July 1971, by ingesting a large quantity of barbiturates and then cutting open her wrists, she was already a legendary and respected figure in the world of photography.

Arbus' work had been exhibited in New York's Museum of Modern Art in the 1967 "New Documents" photography show. After that exhibit, she began teaching photography at various schools including the Parsons School of Design in New York and Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. However, by the time she received this critical recognition for her creative work, she had already clambered down the path of serious mental depression that ultimately led to her suicide.

Arbus is now considered a classic American artist. Her uniquely personal style is much imitated. As a "classic" her art is much debated.

One of Arbus' last projects, begun in late 1969, involved portrait photographs of mentally retarded middle-age people. A few of these black and white portraits appeared in the first posthumous collection of her work published in 1972. In 1995, 51 additional pictures were published in the Untitled collection edited by her daughter and executor, Doon Arbus. The subjects of these photographs are consistent with Arbus' earlier portraits of individuals at or near the edge of society. What makes Arbus' work so creative and artistic is her focus on the relationship between the subject and the artist. The photographs in the Untitled monograph nearly all dwell on this preoccupation. The mentally retarded subjects posing, as it were, for the mentally depressed artist.

Some believe the photographs of the mentally retarded are invasive and that Arbus callously exploits them. Her motives for producing the work clearly relate to her absorption in the dialectic between artist and subject, and by implication, audience and subject. Arbus might very well have been exploitative. Her motives probably had to do with self-discovery and self-therapy. Her concerns are obviously spiritual and certainly not financial. However, the relationship between the artist and money is very much a subtext in Arbus' life and work. Many of her subjects were not in the mainstream of the capitalist social culture. And, of course, outside of the mainstream is where we increasingly find our most interesting artists working. In an interview with Studs Terkel for his book Hard Times, Arbus, identified as "Daisy Singer" has this to say about art and money:

I can't believe that money is any proper reward for art. Art seems to me something you do because it makes you feel good to do it; it excites you, or you learn something from it.

Diane Arbus' development as an artist is also the story of a middle-class rebellion caused by the failure of love to reconcile the isolation modern culture has created in its mindless focus on image instead of substance. It wasn't the "under belly" that Arbus photographed. Rather, it was the substance of the culture pushed inexorably to the edge by a society addicted to the surface of things. Her subjects were what the German philosopher Spengler might have called the "fellaheen". These subjects were the photographic equivalents of what the Beat Generation writers like Kerouac and Ginsberg and Burroughs were writing about in their books: the substance on the edge. Arbus simply re-placed them in the middle of her stark, black & white square. She used light and chemicals; the Beats used ink and chemicals.

Arbus was born Diane Nemerov in 1923 in New York City. She was the daughter of a wealthy Jewish family. She would later claim that she had been born "way up the ladder of middle class respectability" and was "clambering down as fast as I could ever since." Her father, David Nemerov was a very successful businessman. He had married Gertrude Russek, whose family had started Russek's Fur store which later became Russek's of Fifth Avenue under David's leadership.

Diane's paternal grandfather, Meyer Nemerov left his native Russia after defying his parents' wishes and marrying his sweetheart and not the girl his orthodox Jewish family had picked for him. This piece of ancestral history will repeat itself when Diane, only 14, meets and falls in love with Allan Arbus, who is 19. In spite of her parents' objections, she carries on a secret love affair with Arbus all through high school. Less than a month after her 18th birthday, she marries Allan Arbus.

It was Allan Arbus, who introduced Diane to photography. During World War II, he was trained at the Signal Corps photography school at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. Each night when he returned home, he would teach Diane what he had learned in a makeshift darkroom set up in their bathroom. After the war, Allan and Diane set out together on a career in the fashion photography business. It really wasn't until 1957 that Diane began to work independently in photography. Coincident with this development was the sad unraveling of her marriage.

Allan and Diane finally stopped living together in the summer of 1959. It was from this point forward that Arbus really began to develop as an artist. As her life with Allan Arbus receded, the pain of failed love spurned her creative talents. But since the impetus, in part, for the creative artistic flowering was the devastating loss of her love life, her art speaks to the conflict artists frequently confront: the self, alone, in the world with others. What Arbus' remarkable photographs reveal to the mind is the intense sense of isolation and the implication that somehow we need to reconnect ourselves or we won't survive. Her work, of course, is haunted by her own loneliness and dark side and her failed attempts to reconnect. She used her camera as a survival tool and her photography as a survival strategy.

She also used her innate sexuality. After the dissolution of her marriage, Arbus embarked on a wild and erotic quest to somehow rejoin herself to a humanity she felt increasingly alienated from. Apparently she photographed sex orgies, bondage scenes and became increasingly interested in sexual/erotic subjects. She also engaged in a number of intimate, but ultimately unrewarding, sexual affairs. In her biography of Arbus, Patricia Bosworth writes:

[Arbus] was always frightened, but that meant conquering her fear each time...Because the only way to understand something was to confront it, she said, and when you had sex, restraints were broken, inhibitions disappeared. Sex was the quickest, most primitive way to begin connecting with another human being.

Sex, art...these were the replacements Arbus utilized for her lost love. It is the modern condition. Observers and critics have frequently commented that we see Arbus' work more with our minds than our eyes. It is, finally, the contradictions and complexities of the modern condition that we see in the stark square pictures of Arbus.

We are proud to honor Diane Arbus with this Honored Cosmic Player Plate for her contributions to cosmic baseball and to humanity as a woman with a dark but important vision.

Untitled, 1970-71

Official Cosmic Record

Diane Arbus 1981 Vanguards 9.00 6 6 3 4 0 0
Total 1 Season

ERA-Earned Run Average; IP-Innings Pitched; ER-Earned Runs
BB-Walks; K-Strikeouts; W-Won; L-Lost

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Vol. 16 Contents

Main JCBA Plate

Diane Arbus- Honored Cosmic Player Plate
URL darbhcpp.html
Published: October 1, 1997
Updated: July 21, 1998, October 7, 1998; March 14, 2007analytics
JCBA Vol. 16: November 25, 1997
Copyright © 1997 by the Cosmic Baseball Association