Diane Arbus, born Diane Nemerov on March 14, 1923 in New York City, became one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century. She was introduced to photography by her husband Allan, who gave her her first 35mm camera after their marriage in 1941. The two began a commercial career in photography after World War II where Allan was serving as a military photographer. Under the name “Diane & Allan Arbus,” the duo produced fashion photographs for top women’s magazines such as Vogue, and for several advertising agencies. Allan usually shot the pictures while Diane acted as the art director, organizing the models, props, choosing the locations, and dictating hair and make-up. Growing tired of the day-to-day limitations and stresses of the fashion world, Diane left the business to become an independent photographer, simultaneously ending her marriage to Allan. Acquiring her own Rolleiflex camera in 1956, Diane explored the streets of New York to find subjects that satisfied her looming curiosities of outsiders. She sought to photograph people, places, and things that were beyond the bubble she felt she grew up in, and often chronicled the fringes of society.
Her photographs are provocative, slightly sensational, and controversial yet inherent in Arbus’s imagery are humanistic and compassionate qualities. Her pictures changed the face of American photography and what was deemed fine art within the medium for years to come. Taking inspiration from a wide array of photographers such as Berenice Abbott, Richard Avedon, Robert Frank, Bill Brandt, August Sander, and Brassaï, and having been mentored by Lisette Model, Arbus was able to accumulate stylistic references in order to create pictures that were all her own. Noted for taking intimate portraits of marginalized people, such as dwarfs, giants, transgenders, nudists, circus performers, hippies, and other outsiders, Arbus was to become a photographer with originality in concept, and she allowed her subjects to become more than subjects; they were collaborators on much bigger pictures with psychological intensity. There was little distance between Diane and her subjects. In her own words she sought to capture “the space between who someone is and whom they think they are.” She created powerful, ambitious images driven by a desire for experience.
“Woman in a Bird Mask, N.Y.C.,” taken in 1967, portrays a smiling woman in decorative costume, with a bird propped on her head, the beak resting near her nose, with feathers protruding from the sides of her face. The picture, taken with a medium format camera, is representative of Diane’s classic, almost surreal style of frontal portraiture focused within a square frame, using a flash in daylight to detach her subjects from what would have served as the background. Within this image the woman’s face and the mask merge and there is no separating the subject from her accoutrements. The mask becomes a way of unmasking her subject, and Arbus is able to present the woman just as she intends to present herself to the public. She flips the notion that a mask serves to hide and instead reveals aspects of her subject’s personality that would have inevitably remained concealed, just as she desired to do with all of the “outsiders” she photographed. Diane Arbus never worked sequentially; therefore her pictures are often rather puzzling because she provides little to no context to read her imagery. In “Woman in a Bird Mask,” the viewer is left uncertain as to whether the subject is attending a party, work, or dressing for the camera. All the information we have is the bare image captured by Arbus’s lens.
At some point, the line between Arbus’s personal life and her work blurred. Her photographs embodied the courage and independence characteristic of her personality as she challenged established conventions and questioned what the distance between photographer and subject should and could be. Arbus took her own life on July 26, 1971 at the age of 48. She did not live to see her work thrive as it was destined to, but she remains one of the most original photographers to live and work in the 20th century. Other prints of “Woman in a Bird Mask,” are part of prestigious museum collections such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, NY among others. Her photographic style was direct and austere, original and provocative, and has influenced contemporary photography immensely.