Diane Arbus, March 14, 1923-July 26,1971, was a photographer known for capturing people outside of the spectrum of “normality”. From nudists to circus performers, Arbus was all about “abnormalities” amongst the people of New York. Growing up, Diane was raised in a wealthy household amongst fellow creatives. Her father was a painter, her younger sister was a sculptor and designer, and her brother was an English professor that become the United State Poet Laureate and eventually father art historian, Alexander Nemerov. When Diane was eighteen, she married her childhood love, Allan Arbus and they had two daughters. Their first daughter, Doon, became a writer later in life while their second daughter, Amy, became a photographer.
In 1971, Diane Arbus committed suicide in a bathtub by ingesting poison and cutting her wrists. Twenty-one years later, Amy did a photographic series in a bathtub as a way to try and process the her mothers death. This series became widely known as Amy’s best work.
In an interview following her series completion, Amy Arbus said, “It wasn’t until my toe hit the water that it dawned on me why I was there. The process itself was so awkward and challenging. I was completely distracted by the logistics of mounting the camera and tripod on the bathroom sink, pre-setting the focus, exposure, and camera angle that I wasn’t thinking about the significance of what I was doing. It was 1992 and I was there revisiting a scene I’d never witnessed.
I thought about what it must have looked like almost obsessively at first, but then it had been twenty-one years since it happened. When I was seventeen and away at school, my mother, Diane Arbus, took her own life in the bathtub. Her death was such a shock that I don’t remember much about the next ten years. I had taken many baths since she died, but this one with my camera perched above me was significant.
When I developed the one roll of film, I realized how little I knew about how the pictures would look. I used a cable release to trip the shutter and the camera was set to a ten second delay so I could get back in the water each time to make another exposure. Even though the camera never moved, I had no way of predicting how much or how little of me was in the frame.
These photographs taught me that pictures are never the same as the experience of making them, that they fail if they are merely what you intended, and that mistakes can lead to discoveries. But more importantly, they convinced me that thoughts and feelings register on film (or pixels) which changed the way I worked and the way I look at photographs.
When I saw the photographs I was surprised and embarrassed because they were so unflattering. They weren’t like nudes, they were naked and raw. But I came to realize that they were full of stark contrasts: fitful yet lifeless, violent yet sexual, and maternal yet innocent. They were unlike anything I had ever done.”
After Diane’s death, a traveling exhibition of her work along with a book titled “Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph” became her first publication and her work became the first to be displayed at the Venice Biennale. This book was in print from 1972-2006 and became the best selling photography monograph. From 2003-2006, Arbus and her work became a part of another traveling exhibition, “Diane Arbus Revelations” and in 2006, a major motion picture titled, “Fur” was released and was a fictional version of her life story.
Amy Arbus Self Portrait Series in the bathtub:
Amy and Diane Arbus are both a huge inspiration to me and my work. Diane Arbus reminds me that there is room for artistic coping mechanisms even when you feel all is lost. She also reminds me to continue to create work because I still have that ability while she is now gone. Her work is a gift to this world and I am incredibly lucky to have witnessed it with my own eyes. I have a huge love for bathtub photography and the vulnerability of being in a bathtub. For Diane, the correlation to the bathtub comes from her suicide and for Amy, it comes from her photo series in the bathtub inspired by her mothers suicide. Both of these women have photographs that inspire my work but what inspires me more than that is the two of them themselves.
My personal favorite photo of Diane's is (of course) this one featuring a beautiful, white, clawfoot bathtub.
All work courteous of Diane Arbus and Amy Arbus