[Pho.Talk] Learn from Diane Arbus: Influences, Techniques, Legacy

Diane Arbus’ most famous photos

  • Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park (1962)

  • Identical Twins (1966)

  • A young man in curlers at home (1966)

  • Patriotic young man with a flag (1967)

  • A Jewish Giant at Home with his Parents (1970)

These are just five of the images that I think are particularly impressionable, and the list is by no means definitive.

With the exception of the first, all other images were included by Diane into her masterpiece in form of a portfolio, A Box of Ten Photographs.

Diane Arbus’ childhood

Born to Jewish parents, David Nemerov and Gertrude Russek Nemerov, in 1923, Diane Arbus grew up in a wealthy family in New York. The family owned a department store Russek’s, which expanded into women’s fashion. Having studied art, Diane began her creative pursuits in painting. She later met Allan Arbus, her husband to-be, while both working at Russek’s. She was married to Allan at the age of 18, who gifted her with a camera. Diane began dabbling with photography, which evolved into her career for life.

Owing thanks to the success of the family business, Diane was largely cushioned from the effects of the Great Depression, and remembered little of that from her childhood.

It wasn’t something she took pride in, though, as she later revealed in a radio interview with Studs Terkel. She felt very much ashamed of her privilege, describing herself as ‘a princess in some loathsome movie’.

There is no evidence that Diane had been interested in photography as a child. Her encounter with the arts began in 1928 - she would have been 5 years old then - when she was enrolled into the Ethical Culture School.

Diane studied art there for the ensuing 12 years, graduating in 1940. Throughout her formative years, her father played an instrumental role in encouraging her artistic developments; he arranged for her private lessons with an illustrator who worked at Russek’s.

In the same interview with Terkel, Diane expressed her dislike for painting. She quit painting after graduating from high school.

How did Diane Arbus get into photography?

Diane’s earliest interest in photography was known to be when she started dating Allan Arbus at the age of 13. They visited photography exhibitions together, and when they eventually married, Allan gifted her with a camera. Diane then enrolled in a short photography course taught by Berenice Abbott at the New School for Social Research, which formally marked her venture into photography. The couple soon began producing fashion photography for Diane’s family business, Russek’s.

Despite being widely known as a documentary photographer, Diane Arbus began her photographic career in the fashion studio.

Partnering up with then husband Allan Arbus, the pair established a solid reputation for studio photography and eventually had their work published in high-calibre fashion magazines including Glamour and Vogue.

While pursuing work professionally as a fashion photographer, Diane took workshops regularly, through which she came to meet many of the key influences in her mature work.

What type of photographer was Diane Arbus?

Diane Arbus began her career as a studio fashion photographer. For almost a decade, she shot for fashion magazines like Glamour and Vogue. Over a series of workshops with mentor Lisette Model, Diane discovered a territory in photography that she would come to own - a series of portraits of evilness. She left her mark as a documentary photographer having been awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship, published on Artforum magazine, and most notably, posthumously, scored the Venice Biennale in 1972.

In the early stages of her career, Diane shot fashion photography professionally. It all began with Russek’s, which was a department store owned by Diane’s family, which at the time had a division in women’s fashion.

In the partnership she shared with her then husband Allan Arbus, Diane mostly took up the role of what we would call today art direction.

In an interview Allan gave later, he recalled that Diane was the one coming up with concepts, choosing models and styling.

Diane moved on from the studio work following her separation with Allan, which also put an end to their shared career in fashion photography.

Coincidentally, this was when she crossed paths with photographer and mentor Lisette Model, who went on to become one of her greatest influences in relation to her most iconic body of work.

Under Model’s guidance, Diane discovered what she truly wanted to photograph - evilness. She gradually developed a documentary approach to the series of portraits that she was to do in the coming decades.

The portraits consisted of individuals and groups that were social taboos and oddities in the American population at the time, though shot with an innocence that imposed little of her own interpretation of the subject.

She would find out where these eccentric people are, the ceremonies and events they take part in. According to a letter she wrote to her brother, some occasions and festivals she mentioned include beauty contests, funeral ceremonies, masquerades, dog shows, wrestling competitions, among others.

She was also known for being terrific at building trust with her subjects. People let Diane into their personal spaces, which was crucial in enabling her to produce work in a straight, documentary fashion.

What are Diane Arbus photographs about?

In her own words, Diane’s photographs are about eccentric members, often marginalised by society, in their most private, vulnerable states. It is about revealing their lives without passing judgement, showing their characters as they were in their natural habitats.

Who were Diane Arbus' teachers and inspiration?

The first teacher that played an instrumental role in Diane Arbus’ development in photography was Berenice Abbott, who provided her with a technical foundation to the craft. The second teacher was Lisette Model, who guided Diane in finding her own true voice, and thus what to photograph. Other figures who had an extensive influence on Diane’s career include Marvin Israel, who suggested the creation of Diane’s portfolio A Box of Ten Photographs.

Diane’s appreciation of photography began in her late teens, when she would attend photo exhibition with her then boyfriend Allan Arbus. Records show that she has been to various photography shows at the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art), including a solo show Walker Evans: American Photographs (1938).

There is no evidence that there is a particular Depression era photographer that she looked up to, but based on the fact that this is this is where her early photography education began, it is reasonable to speculate that the social documentary done in that period formed part of the library that Diane would draw ideas from.

Berenice Abbott was the first teacher with whom Diane studied photography, despite only for a short course.

There is not much indication that Berenice had a substantial influence on Diane’s work since their brief encounter; rather, the guidance was mainly technical. Around that period in time, photography was regarded as a relatively new art form, and this was among the first batch of courses to attempt to formalise photography education. It is reasonable to say that the course would be fundamental, at least with respect to Diane’s career.

It is also worth noting that Berenice was a very different photographer from Diane; Berenice was the best known for her architectural shots of New York City, and later in her life, for her experimental shots of scientific phenomenons on a microscopic level.

Towards the end of her partnership with then husband Allan in fashion photography, Diane took workshops taught by Lisette Model, who was arguably the most influential photographer in Diane’s life.

Lisette was the best known for her avant-garde street photography of postwar New York, which in my opinion bears a fair level of resemblance with the early 35mm work of Diane, less so with her most iconic work. They come from a place of hoping to capture a fleeting moment without being personally attached to their subjects.

That said, however, it was Lisette’s spirit and philosophy that proved pivotal to the drastic change in the way Diane photographed after leaving behind a career in fashion. She had held close to her heart the many teachings by Lisette, most importantly the ideas of specificity and originality.

Diane is quoted for saying in her masterclass that ‘It was my teacher, Lisette Model, who finally made it clear to me that the more specific you are the more general it will be.’; Lisette also encouraged her to find what it was that she truly wanted to photograph, and to be her unique self ‘at any price’.

From that point onwards, Diane started listening to herself. She discovered her identity and true interests as a photographer, and the rest is history - she would go on to produce some of the century’s most striking images, of eccentrics and evilness.

A final source of influence that was critical to the height of success Diane achieved in her career, despite posthumously, was Marvin Israel. He was a photo editor at Harper’s Bazaar at the time and they have likely met because of the fashion work Diane was doing.

Sadly, Diane never got to witness the level of acclaim her work has achieved; the majority of the recognition happened after she took her own life in 1971.

But what held her posthumous career together was her portfolio, A Box of Ten Photographs. The complete portfolio was presented in the 36th Venice Biennale 1972, one of the world’s most indispensable platforms for contemporary art.

Diane was the first photographer ever to be included as an exhibiting artist. This was a significant event in photographic history because it marked the point at which photography was properly recognised globally as a legitimate form of art.

Marvin was in charge of the design of the box of Diane’s portfolio, but more importantly he was the one who suggested the idea of a portfolio, the centrepiece on which her posthumous recognition was based.

What techniques did Diane Arbus use?

Diane first started shooting on a Nikon 35mm film camera. She enjoyed the texture of grain and gladly embraced it in her early work. During a mid-career transition, Diane experimented with Rolleiflex and Mamiya cameras, often paired with a flash. By firing the flash directly at her subjects, the harsh highlights flatten the sense of depth, often creating a jarring, surreal look. The square format printed with black borders evolved into her signature over the years.

Apart from the obvious, aka the cameras she shot with, there are a number of things in the way she worked that are worth noting.

The use of direct flash

The first has to do with her use of an on-camera flash, often fired from a close distance from the subject.

Pictures of Diane with her setup show that it is mounted towards the top left of her camera, and in her pictures especially the indoor portraits, you see a distinct shadow towards the right of the subject that mimics its outline.

You can judge how far away she was from the subject based on the quality of that shadow. The larger it is, the closer they were. And the result of firing a flash close up is that the person becomes washed out, making them look flat like life-sized cardboards, while leaving behind deep, crushed blacks right next to their face.

The unusually bright figures accompanied with unusually dark shadows placed side by side, as is the case with many frames, engenders a somewhat uncomfortable ambiance in her pictures.

Darkroom printing techniques

Diane was not just prolific in relation to photographing but she had a very well thought-out philosophy as to how she wanted her work to be seen, be it in form of prints, portfolios, or books.

Here we are mainly concerned with her print-making techniques, which she so skilfully leveraged on to deliver, as a final presentation, more than what the image itself would convey.

It might sound abstract at first so let’s look at the technical bits of how her printing practices evolved over the years.

When Diane was still mainly working on 35mm film, she printed her images how most would - with clean, solid edges that bled directly into the white, outer areas of the paper. You achieve this in the darkroom by making sure the negative is perfectly fitted into a negative carrier, and placing the easel blades right where the project image ends.

After her switch to medium format, she started printing with black borders around the image, which then bleeds into the white areas of the paper. That, for a very long while, was her signature. There are a couple of ways you can achieve this, the methods coming with varying complexity levels, but the main variants would be how tightly you fit your negatives into the carrier, and how you space out the easel blades to allow for a black strip to surround the image.

Since black borders began gaining popularity among photographers, Diane complained of it becoming a cliche and therefore began experimenting with yet another way of printing, this time allowing the image to gently disappear into the white space around it. She did this by filling the negative carrier with cardboard around the negative borders.

The result of this treatment of her prints, in my opinion, is that the images blend gracefully into their surroundings; the prints therefore perfectly embody the surrealism that her images strive to portray.

The presentation in the physical print, specifically in relation to the vanishing borders, took it to a level that the image itself would not have achieved.

Personal attachment to subjects

Many photographs in her time were done in a ‘shoot and run’ fashion - you happen to be in a certain scenario with a camera which you think might be a moment worth remembering in history, therefore you take a photo, oftentimes in people’s faces and try to get away with it as much as you can.

That is a very legitimate way of social documentary, it is fair to say that certain fleeting moments could have a lasting impact on how certain thing are understood by generations to come.

But this was not how Diane operated chiefly. Diane is known as a photographer who worked somewhat like a photojournalist. She had a personal interest in the people she was photographing, and did put in the time and effort to get to know them.

Much of her work was shot in very private spaces, like someone’s bedroom, their back gardens, revealing their vulnerabilities and vices. This is not the level of access you get by randomly running into a stranger on a street making a couple of minutes of small talk.

The more access you have, the better the pictures tend to get.


In this article, we talked about:

  • Diane Arbus’ most famous photos;

  • Diane Arbus’ childhood;

  • How Diane Arbus got into photography;

  • What type of photographer Diane Arbus was;

  • What Diane Arbus’ photographs about;

  • Diane Arbus' teachers and inspiration; and

  • techniques that Diane Arbus used.

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