The Cost of Diane Arbus’s Life on the Edge

Photo: Tod Papageorge

In 1956, Diane Arbus was 33 but still child-faced and quiet, girlish in a pageboy cut and Peter Pan collars. She was married to the man she’d met at 13 in Russeks, the massive fur store: Diane, the daughter of the wealthy Jewish owners, growing up on Central Park West; Allan, the city-college dropout five years her senior, working a menial job in the shop’s ad department. The pair had since transformed themselves into a duo of fashion photographers, shooting for magazines from Vogue to Harper’s Bazaar for nearly a decade. In a series for Glamour dubbed “Mr. and Mrs. Inc.,” they were profiled as an adorable working couple: The accompanying image shows Allan staring straight at the viewer, while Diane, her hair curled into a flip, eyes downcast, leans her head against his cheek. After long hours in the studio, she’d hurry home to cook dinner for her husband and their two young daughters.

But Diane was growing dissatisfied. She dreamt up the concepts for their shoots — then spent her days handling the models, pinning their clothes in place, a role even Allan admitted was “demeaning.” Besides, she’d begun asking herself, what could she possibly learn by posing a person in borrowed clothes, inserting them as a human fill-in-the-blank into some art director’s fantasy?

Allan had given his wife her first camera after their honeymoon, and slowly, steadily, Diane was developing an independent relationship to photography. She wanted to work in a more intimate way, far less tame and composed. On one assignment that spring, after a day spent posing little girls on a swing set for Vogue, Diane stepped back. Raising her voice only slightly, she made an announcement: “I can’t do it anymore. I’m not going to do it anymore.” She was done with the contained environment of the studio; she needed to move out into the world.

Diane committed herself to wandering New York City with her 35mm Nikon, following strangers down the street or lying in wait in doorways until she saw someone she felt compelled to photograph. This was the onset of a lifelong addiction to experience, which would feed her and consume her in equal measure. Around this time, she asked her husband to develop a roll of film, and she labeled the negatives’ glassine sleeve with a fine black marker: “#1.”

We label things in private as a promise to ourselves. We number things as an act of imagination — not unlike the way the Dutch mapped a grid of 12 avenues and 155 streets onto the mostly empty island of Manhattan. #1 — the beginning of something.

Diane Arbus would continue numbering her negatives over the next 15 years, up until her suicide at the age of 48. But this first moment of self-awareness, when she confessed to herself that she was an artist, is pivotal to both a new book and a show of her earliest works opening today. “I can’t do it anymore” — that’s how Arthur Lubow’s essential biography, Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer, starts out; the exhibit at the Met Breuer, “diane arbus: in the beginning,” features about 70 never-before-seen prints, the experiments that immediately followed “#1.” Together, these go a long way toward making whole an artist who’s long been distorted by a cult of personality.

By the late ’60s, Diane would become renowned for her striking, often confrontational black-and-white images of outsiders, from cross-dressers to drag performers to circus “freaks.” She gave a human dimension to extravagant individuals living on the fringe, while her photos of American families, children, and socialites had an undeniably dark tenor — she flipped the social balance, as if the entire country had gone through the looking glass. With her sudden death in 1971, she became one of the best-known American photographers in history — and one of the most controversial.

The legend of Diane Arbus has as much to do with a prurient fascination with her personal life as it does with her images. Which makes sense — the line between her life and her work is blurred in the extreme; in a conservative time, she did what few women of her background dared, pushing her personal boundaries, seeking out new territory. But while she’s present in the close encounters that produced her photographs, in every face that stares back at the camera, to confuse the woman with her work is to sell her short. She wrestled with being both a photographer and a mother; she struggled with depression; she put herself in danger over and over again. But as an artist, she was deliberate, calculating, and in control, prepared to do almost anything to grab the image she wanted.

There is a photo Diane shot in 1963, of a set of teenage triplets in their bedroom somewhere in New Jersey, one of the first in her series of “human multiples.” They appear identical, all three with curly, black, shoulder-length hair, all three dressed in matching clothing — the same white headband and white shirt (buttoned to the neck), the same dark skirt. They are seated in a row on one of three identical beds, each with a country-style white headboard and a quilted comforter; a thin, ruffled curtain, like a tiered skirt, covers the window — all of the details suburban-tranquil and suburban-satisfied.

But it’s in the faces on these look-alike sisters that this photograph takes a mythic turn. From left to right, their emotions read wise, happy, sad, their differences as blunt as a row of ancient theater masks. It’s as if these three young women are aspects of one person — one young woman who, as Whitman put it, contains multitudes. Diane gives us an image that transforms each aspect of ourselves into someone wholly separate, as if to acknowledge how much we can be at war with ourselves.

As a teenager, Diane Nemerov imagined herself as a kind of human multiple, one girl with many faces. Her mother’s family owned Russeks, on Fifth Avenue, and her father was the president. The Nemerovs raised their three children on Park Avenue and then in a 14-room apartment in the San Remo on the Upper West Side; Diane studied at Fieldston. It was a formal childhood: She was cared for by a bevy of nannies and maids, driven by a chauffeur, cooked for by a professional; her parents pronounced her name in the French way, dee-ANN. Her father was often at the store, while her mother was distant, lingering in bed until nearly noon, applying face cream and smoking cigarettes. She once suffered a nervous breakdown that left her unable to wash or dress for many months, while the children were cared for by the help; during this period, 11-year-old Diane locked herself in her bedroom for hours at a time.

Her brother Howard — three years older and, like Diane, a beautiful, precocious weirdo — was the first man and the first artist she was ever close to. She was a young painter, a quiet, original thinker; he was an intellectual and a great reader, a writer in the making. (Howard Nemerov would eventually become a Pulitzer Prize–winning poet.) When Diane discovered that she could talk to Allan, too, about the creative life, she made him her new co-conspirator — and her way out of her family’s grip. Still teenagers when he proposed, they built a relationship of equals; and if they were not completely monogamous — why be so bourgeois? — they were completely committed to each other.

If Allan felt abandoned when Diane quit their fashion partnership, he didn’t show it — he realized that her leaving had been inevitable. He helped find her a studio and darkroom, continued taking on commercial work under their joint name, and made sure their assistant developed her rolls before any of his magazine materials. “The most important work that goes on here,” he’d say, “is Diane’s.”

These first prints of hers — many of them in the new Met show — make visible Diane’s transition from the uptown, private-school-educated wife, the quieter half of a polite professional couple, into someone longing to take risks, exploring the streets, staring down strangers to teach herself how to see. You can see her slowly realizing that she can talk to people, that they will stop for her, that she might even be able to follow them home, ask them to take off their clothes, show her their tattoos and their scars, or how they hid their male parts under women’s panties.

Starting out, she avoids real human contact, photographing wax-museum displays and stills of movie screens or stealing shots on the street and in the showers at Coney Island. When her subjects stare back at the camera — a barber through his shop window, a woman across a deli counter — it’s usually with a look of surprise or suspicion. And then it happens: They begin facing her dead-on, from a man with a bottle and baby at an Italian fair to a crew of boys roughhousing on the beach to a stern middle-aged woman in a fur jacket. They’d entered into an agreement with the photographer; their body language says so.

Diane is no longer pretending to photograph life uninterrupted. These people are aware that they’re being photographed, and the images are more loaded for it. Here I am, their faces seem to say, so what do you need to know?

In the summer of 1959, giving in to pressure from Allan’s new, not-so-polyamorous girlfriend, Diane and Allan separated. They decided to rent two apartments in the West Village, with Diane and the girls moving into a carriage house on Charles Street. Their lives remained closely intertwined: Allan came over for Sunday brunch, balanced their books, and continued processing Diane’s film.

Yet something significant had shifted for Diane. Her new place, though dark and cramped, was completely hers; she placed her mattress on the floor and slept with her photos pinned up nearby. She cut off her hair, transforming herself from an overgrown girl into something more androgynous and severe: a working artist.

On her own, she was braver. Though she’d photographed at circuses and freak shows before, she'd focused on broad images of the scene, as if she hardly dared to shoot the performers themselves. But now she moved in closer, building more deliberate relationships with the radical outsiders she was meeting, following them out of their tents: She convinced Jack Dracula, “The Marked Man,” to pose for her at a bar and in an overgrown field; she snapped Miss Makrina, the Russian dwarf, in her home, sweeping up her kitchen, and “The Man Who Swallows Razor Blades” cradling a newborn infant. She pushed farther into places her husband would have been terrified for her to go (as he told Lubow), spending late nights in Times Square and at strangers’ apartments on the Bowery. The chase for images became the axis of her life. As a close friend said of Diane, “Once you’ve become an adventurer, because Diane was really an adventurer … you’re geared to adventure, you seek out further adventures, and your life is really based upon them.”

Allan put it more simply, decades after her death: “The main characteristic of Diane,” he said, “was courage.”

In stark contrast to her own mother, Diane, to the best of her ability, was devoted to her children. Her daughter Doon would later describe how she and her mother would dare each other to rush up to total strangers in Central Park and try to get a rise out of them. It comes off like a kid’s-play version of Diane's work.

But to be both a full-time mother and a professional photographer — there was no model for that, and the situation required some heavy improvisation. Diane was scraping together a living through magazine work, and while Doon was fairly independent, Amy was still only 5 years old. Diane would often leave her daughter with a friend for the day, or she’d take her along on her tamer assignments. Lubow describes one such instance when, working in Central Park, Diane didn’t notice that Amy had fallen into a pond until the girl reemerged on her own, soaked and coughing. He also quotes an entry in Diane’s appointment book around this time that sums up the surreal balance she was attempting to pull off: “Buy Amy’s birthday present, go to the morgue.”

As with many artists, Diane’s work thrived on her independence — which doubled as a striking loneliness — but she did not. She quickly sought out someone to fill the void Allan had left behind. Within months of moving to Charles Street, she met the art director and painter Marvin Israel. A mercurial personality, and a married man who made clear that he would never leave his wife, he was Diane’s choice. A year younger, and also the product of an upper-class Jewish family on Central Park West, Marvin made his name at Seventeen, and later at Harper’s Bazaar and Mademoiselle. A gurulike art teacher, he spoke about art as if it were an emergency, and would throw a fit when someone didn’t follow his creative advice. According to Lubow, the art director Ruth Ansel, once his assistant, said he propelled her to do her strongest work, and also to “cry miserably.” He told the photographer Saul Leiter, “You could have been great if you only cared”; to a painter complaining about his struggles, he said, “Why don’t you just kill yourself?”

This was a man of loud opinions who pushed very hard — and Diane wanted to be pushed. He may ultimately have been a frustrated artist, but he was her intellectual equal, instantly understanding her work. While Diane the woman craved constant affection and support, it’s likely Diane the artist refused herself that much of a crutch. She would not re-domesticate herself.

Though she continued to shoot some of the same subjects, in some of the same locations, in 1962 Diane decided to change equipment, from a 35mm camera to a 2¼-inch medium-format Rolleiflex. The move would define her most classic images. With larger film, the Rollei produces images that are much clearer, sharper — each pencil line of a woman’s drawn-in eyebrows, the tiny shaving cuts on a cross-dresser’s legs, the long spittle hanging suspended from a sobbing baby’s lower lip. And the camera changed Diane’s relationship with her subject. Rather than lift it to her face and quickly focus, she had to hold the Rollei close to waist level, stare down into a window, and carefully adjust the image from above. She’d then turn back to whoever it was — a flower girl at a wedding in Connecticut, a stripper in her dressing room — with her face unobstructed, each getting a clear view of the other. She’d talk to her directly, coax her gently into place, and look straight into her eyes as she snapped the picture.

Diane seduced intimate images out of so many unexpected subjects. There were men with all-over tattoos and circus names, women who dressed as men, a Jewish giant visiting his parents in the Bronx, middle-aged folks in nothing but sandals at a New Jersey nudist camp, twins and triplets in matching dress, strung-out couples in a hippie-filthy Washington Square Park.

Her approach to these strangers was knowing and relentless. With a gang of “rockers” in Brighton, England, she spent hours pretending to take photos with a film-free camera to warm them up. The young motorcycle riders were soon flirting with this American woman 20 years their senior. When photographing a wealthy family at their home in the New York suburbs, Diane, unhappy with their inability to break out of holiday-card formation, employed a truth-by-exhaustion technique: She shot them indoors and outdoors for about eight hours, until everyone was burned out. The final photos were tense, and far more believable. And at her nudist camps, Diane immediately went full-immersion, stripping down like the others: “It just takes a minute and you learn how to do it, and then you’re a nudist,” she later told her students, sounding pretty pleased with herself.

The sideshow “freaks” held a special place for Diane. She felt herself lured in by these men and women physically branded as outsiders; those born with abnormalities, who had not chosen their brand, she thought of as a peculiar kind of royalty. She once said:

Most people go through life dreading they'll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They've already passed their test in life. They're aristocrats.

I was surprised, in looking closely at her work again, by how much of it is about age, the young straining to be adults and adults gripping the relics of their younger selves: preteens competing at ballroom dancing, a little boy with his toy gun drawn, an older woman in her prettiest “negligee.” It’s as if the physical contortions and costumes that this requires were as “freakish” as those of the professional freaks she gravitated toward, as if we were all victims of so much learned behavior. In a note to Israel, Diane writes of a day spent observing people on the street and finding them “all odd and splendid as freaks and nobody able to see himself, all of us victims of the especial shape we come in.” Her images show us, again and again, people striving to become what the viewer knows they will never be — a phenomenon she famously described as “the gap between intention and effect.” Diane recognized that the official freaks, the permanent outsiders, have a self-awareness most of us don’t possess. They know they are destined to lose the game of public appearances.

Whatever empathy or awe she felt for her freaks, Diane knew there was a limit to this sense of connection. She was not really a comrade of the people she photographed or their communities; she was a curious sympathizer, a professional, an artist whose greatest loyalty was to her work. In choosing these people to shoot, she said, “I don’t mean I wish I looked like that. I don’t mean I wish my children looked like that … But I mean that’s amazingly, undeniably something” — an image worth snatching. She also knew, intuitively, that there was a cost to being on the other side of her lens. “This photographing,” she writes, “is really the business of stealing.”

If she’d had her way, none of Diane’s subjects would ever have seen the photos she took of them. Perhaps she worried they might not find the image worth the personal price. But she had another cause for concern: Few of her subjects understood that she was more than some petite, amateur lady-photographer; outside of her work for hire, she rarely asked for releases. She fumbled with her equipment, she giggled and whispered and spoke in a little-girl voice — she gave a false impression of incompetence.

And it went further: Occasionally, during a magazine shoot with a nervous subject, Diane would lie outright about what she was photographing. “Oh no, never,” she told one suburban housewife when she asked if pictures of her family would ever be sold (it became one of her best-known portraits of family dysfunction). “No, nothing shows,” she told the feminist Ti-Grace Atkinson, who believed Diane had been taking head shots (the resulting photo was of Atkinson topless). Most notoriously, there was the shoot for the fourth-ever issue of New York at the East Side apartment of Viva. The Warhol “superstar” claimed that Diane used the head-shots-only line on her as well — but in the published image her breasts were exposed, her head thrown back, a look on her face as if she were having an orgasm; she’d likely been caught mid-eye-roll. (Diane would later tell Allan that another feminist subject, Germaine Greer, was “terrific looking, but I managed to make [her] otherwise.”) When the issue hit newsstands, Viva threatened to sue. That never happened — Warhol advised against it — but founding editor Clay Felker watched advertisers run off in droves. He believed that one too-edgy image ultimately scared off about half a million dollars in revenue, nearly sinking the magazine.

Diane did not feel conflicted about her approach: She was in pursuit of an image that surprised her. Besides, she believed that none of us owns our appearance — it belongs to the world. What our look and our manner communicate is a language for others to decipher.

But Diane's work was driven by a more personal impulse: that fierce desire for experience. John Szarkowski, who became the director of photography at MoMA, told Lubow, “She wanted to know people, almost in a biblical sense. It was knowledge she wanted, not just to make a good picture. The picture was proof of the knowledge.” Israel said she saw the printed photograph as “her trophy; it’s what she received as the reward for her adventure.”

This quality had always been part of her, even during her comfortable childhood. As a teenager, she climbed out a window of their 11th-floor apartment in the San Remo and stood on the ledge just “to see if I could do it.” She took enormous risks for her work, hunting down people who’d lived farther out at the margins than she’d ever traveled. Lubow writes of a conversation Diane had around this time with a close friend: “She complained that she had rarely felt anything in her entire life. She was untouched by the ordinary joys and pains that make people feel alive.” Taking pictures was the closest she could get. “The condition of photographing,” she writes, “is maybe the condition of being on the brink of conversion to anything.”

In the mid-’60s, Diane began trying to photograph sex — before, during, after. She photographed couples in their beds, group-sex events in the city, and swingers’ parties in clean suburban houses where the hostess served cheap snacks before the orgy.  

She also took part — after all, the sexual revolution was in full effect. She’d found it easy enough to strip down with her New Jersey nudists, and this was just another kind of immersion to go along with the work. But her wide-open sexuality also pervaded her personal life: She slept with many of her friends, colleagues, collaborators — strangers, too. As far as Diane was concerned, she was expanding her collection of life experiences, and everyone had a right to that.

Her sexual experimentation had started much earlier, in the claustrophobic apartments of her childhood decorated with fake 18th-century French furniture and heavy drapery: Left to their own devices during their parents’ summer trips to Europe, she and her brother would “play house.” Though, at first, this may not sound all that unusual — two kids innocently experimenting — Diane and Howard developed a sort of romantic infatuation with each other (he carried a photo of her while he was flying combat missions during the war). One of the major revelations of Lubow’s book is Diane’s claim that their physical relationship continued deep into adulthood; she told her psychotherapist, only weeks before her death, they had recently slept together.

By the time she was in her late 30s, sex seemed to have become a bona fide compulsion, each come-on almost a reflex — another way, beyond her photographs, of cataloguing human types. It contributed to the instability of her life, confused some of her friendships (both social and professional), and possibly made her sick: She became seriously ill with what was likely hepatitis B (often contracted through sex), causing the Guggenheim to delay her much-needed fellowship funds and leaving her emaciated and physically weak for years. And while this flinging herself at the world drove her deeper into her new identity as an explorer of the underground, it also seems to have served as a barrier between herself and individuals. She was sampling everything she could, then moving on.

A contact sheet from 1966 shows us one of Diane’s photographic encounters. A black couple — her light-skinned and mostly naked; him darker and shirtless — sits side by side on a sofa, in front of bad wallpaper. The scene has the feel of a very late night. In the sequence of 12 images, the two of them kiss and embrace, he holds her from behind, she places her hand on his chest. They are relaxed; she fingers a cigarette. But in the middle of the series, one frame stands out. In it, the man’s smile is much broader; a different woman, very pale white, has appeared, lying sprawled across his lap, her cheek pressed against his thigh, a hand clutching his knee. This is Diane — her face a blank, her eyes glancing down toward the floor.

To pluck an image of someone from decades in the past and claim it as the key to her innermost self can be an irresponsible move, like playing the amateur analyst. But here’s what I see in this perfect square: the look of someone exhausted and lost. A portrait of someone on the verge of tapping herself out.

In 1967, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand were chosen as the sole three artists to be highlighted in one of MoMA’s first major photography shows, “New Documents.” Diane printed up hundreds of postcards and sent them out, personalized, to as many people as she could think of, from Norman Mailer and Robert Frank to her Fieldston English teacher. When a couple hundred people packed the opening, there they were, in 32 prints, staring back at the crowd: her outsiders, now very much on the inside.

The exhibit was a watershed for the medium — and Diane was at the center of all of the reviews. But, in a wild reversal familiar to many artists, the triumph of the exhibit was followed quickly by the reality of Now what? Though Diane had become one of the most respected photographers in the country, she actually found herself less in demand for magazine work: Editors either feared that she’d give their subjects the “freak” treatment, or that, with all the attention, she must be impossible to work with, a massive ego.

Lubow makes crushingly clear the chasm between Diane’s prestige and visibility during her lifetime and any financial recognition of her work. Her standard rate for her photographs was a modest $100 (under $700 today) — but because there wasn’t yet a market for art photography, institutions argued down her price again and again. MoMA priced her prints at $50 to $75, and the Smithsonian bought five — at $25 per image. The Bibliothèque National de France asked for 20 of her “best and most famous photographs” — for $30 each. Diane eventually agreed to the price, only to have the curator ask if she might throw in a couple more for free.

Yet she hesitated to partner with any of the galleries interested in selling her work. Somehow, Diane remained convinced that she wasn't ready. She had ambitious ideas about how each of her loose photographic series (on “freaks,” on “family,” on “winners and losers”) might take decades to complete — and these ambitions were at odds with keeping herself afloat in the short term. Israel suggested that she produce a limited number of sets of prints to sell directly to collectors, as a way to earn money without the pressure of a show. Diane called the set “A Box of Ten Photographs,” and she agonized over which images to include, personally inscribed each of them, and custom-designed a plexiglass box that doubled as a frame. Each set contained what would become some of her most iconic images — from a portrait of identical twins to her “Jewish giant” to a nudist couple in their living room — works now legendary in the history of American photography. During her lifetime, one of the only buyers would be another artist, Jasper Johns. (One set is on view at the Met Breuer as a complement to her earlier works.)

Around this time, another, more personal stress was eating at Diane: a betrayal by Marvin Israel. According to Lubow’s interviews with a few of Diane’s close friends, Israel, with whom she had been seriously involved for about ten years, began sleeping with her daughter Doon.

Diane had always been attracted to men who could not devote themselves entirely to her, justifying the attachment as something that fed her creative life. But even the most radical among us have emotional limits. And past that point comes the break.

On Monday, July 26, 1971, Diane wrote the words “Last Supper” in her diary. She placed the appointment book on the stairs leading to the bathroom. She swallowed a large dose of barbiturates and, still in her clothes, laid down inside the tub. Then, with great determination — the wounds were deep enough to sever the tendons — she slit her wrists.

When Marvin Israel’s phone calls went unanswered for two days, he let himself into her apartment with his key. Soon Allan and Howard were flying into town. Richard Avedon went to Paris to give Doon, then 26, the news in person, and they flew back together. She drove to Massachusetts to let her sister Amy know (she was only 17). When Diane’s mentor Lisette Model, not a sentimental woman, learned what had happened to her former student, she wept. Photographer Joel Meyerowitz told Lubow he remembers thinking, “If she was doing the kind of work she was doing and photography wasn’t enough to keep her alive, what hope did we have?”

Meanwhile, without a will, responsibility for Diane’s entire body of work went to Doon, effectively making her “The Estate of Diane Arbus.” With Israel’s help, she made possible her mother’s inclusion in the Venice Biennale and a posthumous retrospective at MoMA within 15 months of her death. The MoMA show drew massive crowds, and the accompanying monograph (Diane’s first) has since sold over half a million copies. Many of the prints in the exhibit would eventually sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The large-scale attention, and the dramatic circumstances of her death, dragged Diane’s life into her work and made both photos and photographer mythic. More than ever, people felt compelled to take definitive stances — she was a pained martyr figure who photographed “freaks” as an extension of her personal suffering, or she was a narcissist who made her name through pure exploitation. Both views miss the complexity of the encounters that produced her images.

I find myself returning again to that picture of the triplets in their New Jersey bedroom, and of the giant in his parents’ living room, and the nudist couple holding hands in the woods, and the Man Who Swallows Razor Blades. These images transcend the photographer; they are so much bigger than the details of her own life. But in each, the photographer is reflected back to us in their expressions: Diane was there, pressing her way into hidden worlds to bring back her trophy. She was propelled forward by pure appetite and invention — and, after 15 years, she suddenly felt that her store was empty.

Diane Arbus’s last known negative is labeled “#7459.” She found herself unable to imagine past that number.