“WHEN Diane Arbus (she pronounced it Deeyan) died in 1971, she joined a pantheon of distraught, creative women, including Sylvia Plath, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Janis Joplin, Frida Kahlo and Kay Sage, who all died prematurely. Like Mark Rothko a year before, she slit her wrists and overdosed on pills. Arbus’s suicide increased public awareness of her work, but it masked her delight at trying to capture quite what it means to be human.
Arbus started in 1946 as a stylist, working in close partnership with her husband Allan, photographing fashion advertisements for Russek’s, her father’s Fifth Avenue department store. Later the Arbuses branched out into editorial photography for fashion magazines. Their work, mostly done in their studio with large-format cameras, was competent, but lacked both the clarity and the compositional fireworks of a Richard Avedon or an Irving Penn.
Burned out after a decade of styling ideas for Christmas presents and reversible bunny-fur jackets, Arbus left to do her own thing, quipping later that she preferred to photograph people in their own clothes….