Born Diane Nemerov in 1923, to a wealthy family in New York, Diane Arbus started out in photography shooting fashion with her husband, Allan Arbus, working for magazines such as Glamour, Vogue, and Harper’s Bazaar. In 1956 she quit commercial photography – apparently announcing “I can’t do it anymore. I’m not going to do it anymore” during a spring shoot for Vogue – and took to the streets, documenting passersby, and studying with Lisette Model. Quickly finding her signature style, her work was shown in the New Documents exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1967, which was curated by John Szarkowski and also included work by Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander.
Her portraits proved divisive, and has remained so – some, mostly notably Susan Sontag, judging it coldly voyeuristic, while others feel a sense of empathy. Arbus’ subjects often came from outside of her personal sphere, the circus, for example, or New York’s clubs, and she herself stated that her favourite thing was “to go where I’ve never been”. On the other hand, she could also find a sense of the unsettling in Central Park. In 1971, she took her own life.