Diane Arbus (née Nemerov) was born in New York on March 14, 1923, and grew up in an affluent environment. In 1937 she met Allan Arbus, whom she married at 18 years of age. Together they opened a studio for fashion photography and worked successfully for magazines such as "Harper’s Bazaar" and "Vogue".
In the mid-1950’s, Diane Arbus studied photography at the New School for Social Research. On the advice of her professor Lisette Model, she left the fashion industry in order to follow her own artistic path. Soon she was able to publish her pictures in magazines such as "Esquire" and "The New York Times Magazine". After her divorce from Allan Arbus in 1959, she turned to new subjects.
Her photographs now began to thematize society’s marginalized people – she took portraits of asylum-seekers, dwarves, transvestites, those suffering from psychological disorders, and the handicapped in a very direct but also empathetic and above all respectful manner. Arbus’s portraits also exposed supposedly normal citizens – in her photographs it appears as though their "normalness" is simply an artificial mask.
Arbus’s photographic work is very subjective and assumes the openness of both participants – the photographer and the model. Her pictures speak of alienation, isolation, reality and normalcy, and they still inspire discussion today.
In 1963 and 1966, Arbus was awarded Guggenheim fellowships; later she taught at the Parsons School of Design, at the Cooper Union in New York, and at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. In 1967, Diane Arbus’s controversial photographs were displayed in the exhibition "New Documents" at the MoMA in New York.
Photographs by Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand, who also embraced a kind of street photography, could also be seen in the exhibit. This exhibit broke ground for a new direction in photography, one which can be categorized between social critical documentary photography and "straight photography". "I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn't photograph them", Diane Arbus said about her work.
On July 26, 1971, after longer periods of depression, she took her own life.