Volume 73, Number 39 | January 28 - February 03, 2004


‘Diane Arbus: Family Albums’
Grey Art Gallery
New York University
100 Washington Square East
Thru March 27, 212-998-6780

Family life through the Arbus lens

By Michael Calderone

Photograph by Diane Arbus, “Jayne Mansfield Cimber-Ottaviano, actress, with her daughter, Jayne Marie,” 1965. Copyright Estate of Diane Arbus, 1965. Esquire Collection, Spencer Museum of Art, the University of Kansas .

In 1967, Diane Arbus told Newsweek that through photography she was “exploring, daring” and “doing things I’d never done before.”

She had recently gained significant recognition in the art world, appearing in the “New Documents” exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. However, four years after this statement, at 48, Arbus took her own life. She left behind not only stunning and original artwork, but also a mysterious legacy that becomes blurred with the photographs on the gallery wall. Throughout her career, she bravely delved into subcultures and families, photographing the peculiar bonds that hold people together.

In ‘Family Albums,’ a solo show at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery, over 50 black-and-white photographs and 57 contact sheets are on display. Much of the exhibit focuses on images of the wealthy Matthaei family. The photographs were commissioned by Gay and Konrad Matthaei. Konrad was an actor, socialite, and owner of the Alvin Theater. For two days, Arbus shot 322 images in the family’s Upper East Side townhouse over Christmas.

The image which adorns the catalogue’s cover is a haunting portrait of the youngest daughter, Marcella, who stares wide-eyed into the camera. The images range from individual portraits, posed group photos, and spontaneous shots taken during dinner or relaxing in the idyllic, holiday setting. Aptly titled Family Albums, the pictures take on the feel of sitting in on someone else’s life, a voyeuristic look into a prominent New York family.

In a letter from 1968 to Peter Crookston, a deputy editor of London’s Sunday Times Magazine, Arbus discussed a work in progress that she called “Family Album.” Although the project was never completed, many of her photographs, some which first appeared in Esquire, examined family life during the latter half of the 1960’s.

In the Grey show, several magazine spreads are displayed, including one entitled, “Family Colloquies” that features various notable individuals, from artists to political figures, posing with one of their teenage sons or daughters. In these photos, the physical likeness is obvious, but there is also a visible distance, the freakish qualities of adolescence burgeoning — a time that is certain to strain family ties.

Given Arbus’ upbringing, it is hard to disassociate the artist from images displayed in Family Albums. Arbus was born into an affluent family. Her father, David Nemerov, turned his wife’s family business, ‘Russeks,’ into an upscale Fifth Avenue clothing store, later branching out to other cities. Arbus attended progressive private schools and her brother, Howard Nemerov, became a Pulitzer Prize winning writer, whose novels and poetry received worldwide acclaim. Renée, her younger sister also became an artist, working as a sculptor.

Like her older brother, Diane chose the arts over the family business. After marrying Allan Arbus, the young couple began working together as photographers, taking fashion assignments from magazines such as Vogue, and Glamour and advertisers. The photographs from this period, were mostly taken by Allan, with Diane’s aesthetic input.

Years later, after studying with Lisette Model at The New School, Arbus began to venture on her own, abandoning fashion photography in exchange for snapping photos of a wide range of subjects; including, nudists, midgets, and transvestites. She delved head-first into various social worlds, photographing participants that were joined by interests, biology, or sexual orientation.

Arbus had famously said, “All families are creepy in a way,” from the telegenically cheerful Ozzie and Harriet to a young Brooklyn family on a Sunday stroll.

In “A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, NY, 1970,” an extremely large man towers over his two elderly parents. The scene is absurd, but then to Arbus so was family life in many ways.

Whether this belonging was something Arbus yearned for can only be conjecture, for her suicide in 1971 still remains a mystery. Her bouts of depression were known, and according to biographer Patricia Bosworth, Arbus had sought therapy and was taking anti-depressants. Reportedly, her behavior became increasingly erratic and desperate. She expressed harsh criticism of her work, talked of moving away, and questioned whether she had any insight to offer her photography students.

At Arbus’s funeral, her brother gave the eulogy, and later composed the poem, “To D—Dead by Her Own Hand.” There were rumors of a suicide note, yet a specific reason remains unknown, and although Arbus, who left behind two daughters, may not have offered a detailed explanation, her oeuvre remains as testament to the complexities of the human situation.

“I really believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them,” said Arbus. Gazing at the Matthaei family, parents and children, the celebrities, eccentrics, oddities, and the curious way of approaching the world through her lens, perhaps Arbus was correct.


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