Diane Arbus

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Diane Arbus
Photograph of Diane Arbus by Allan Arbus
(a film test), c. 1949[1]:137
BornDiane Nemerov
(1923-03-14)March 14, 1923
New York, New York, USA
DiedJuly 26, 1971(1971-07-26) (aged 48)
New York, New York, USA
Known forPhotography
Notable work(s)Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park (1962)
Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967 (1967)
Spouse(s)Allan Arbus (1941–1969; divorced; 2 children)
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Diane Arbus
Photograph of Diane Arbus by Allan Arbus
(a film test), c. 1949[1]:137
BornDiane Nemerov
(1923-03-14)March 14, 1923
New York, New York, USA
DiedJuly 26, 1971(1971-07-26) (aged 48)
New York, New York, USA
Known forPhotography
Notable work(s)Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park (1962)
Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967 (1967)
Spouse(s)Allan Arbus (1941–1969; divorced; 2 children)

Diane Arbus (/dˈæn ˈɑrbəs/; March 14, 1923 – July 26, 1971) was an American photographer and writer noted for black-and-white square photographs of "deviant and marginal people (dwarfs, giants, transgender people, nudists, circus performers) or of people whose normality seems ugly or surreal".[2] Arbus believed that a camera could be "a little bit cold, a little bit harsh" but its scrutiny revealed the truth; the difference between what people wanted others to see and what they really did see – the flaws.[3] A friend said that Arbus said that she was "afraid ... that she would be known simply as 'the photographer of freaks'", and that phrase has been used repeatedly to describe her.[4][5][6][7]

In 1972, a year after she killed herself, Arbus became the first American photographer to have photographs displayed at the Venice Biennale.[8] Millions viewed traveling exhibitions of her work in 1972–1979.[9][10] Between 2003 and 2006, Arbus and her work were the subjects of another major traveling exhibition, Diane Arbus Revelations.[11] In 2006, the motion picture Fur, starring Nicole Kidman as Arbus, presented a fictional version of her life story.[12]

Personal life[edit]

Arbus was born Diane Nemerov to David Nemerov and Gertrude Russek Nemerov.[6][13] The Nemerovs were a Jewish couple who lived in New York City and owned Russek's, a famous Fifth Avenue department store.[13][14] Because of her family's wealth, Arbus was insulated from the effects of the Great Depression while growing up in the 1930s.[13] Arbus's father became a painter after retiring from Russek's; her younger sister would become a sculptor and designer; and her older brother, Howard Nemerov, would later become United States Poet Laureate, and the father of the Americanist art historian Alexander Nemerov.[6]

Diane Nemerov attended the Fieldston School for Ethical Culture, a prep school.[11] In 1941, at the age of eighteen, she married her childhood sweetheart Allan Arbus.[6] Their first daughter Doon (who would later become a writer), was born in 1945 and their second daughter Amy (who would later become a photographer), was born in 1954.[6]

Diane and Allan Arbus separated in 1958, and were divorced in 1969.[15]

Photographic career[edit]

The Arbuses' interests in photography led them, in 1941, to visit the gallery of Alfred Stieglitz, and learn about the photographers Mathew Brady, Timothy O'Sullivan, Paul Strand, Bill Brandt, and Eugène Atget.[1]:129[15] In the early 1940s, Diane's father employed them to take photographs for the department store's advertisements.[5] Allan was a photographer for the U.S. Army Signal Corps in World War Two.[15]

In 1946, after the war, the Arbuses began a commercial photography business called "Diane & Allan Arbus", with Diane as art director and Allan as the photographer.[5] They contributed to Glamour, Seventeen, Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, and other magazines even though "they both hated the fashion world".[10][16] Despite over 200 pages of their fashion editorial in Glamour, and over 80 pages in Vogue, the Arbuses' fashion photography has been described as of "middling quality".[17] Edward Steichen's noted 1955 photographic exhibit, The Family of Man, did include a photograph by the Arbuses of a father and son reading a newspaper.[6]

In 1956, Arbus quit the commercial photography business.[5] Although earlier she had studied photography with Berenice Abbott, her studies with Lisette Model, beginning in 1956, led to Arbus's most well-known methods and style.[5] She began photographing on assignment for magazines such as Esquire, Harper's Bazaar, and The Sunday Times Magazine in 1959.[6] Around 1962, Arbus switched from a 35 mm Nikon camera which produced grainy rectangular images to a twin-lens reflex Rolleiflex camera which produced more detailed square images.[6][18][19]

In 1963, Arbus was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for a project on "American rites, manners, and customs"; the fellowship was renewed in 1966.[8][20] In 1964, Arbus began using a twin-lens reflex Mamiya camera with flash in addition to the Rolleiflex.[18] Her methods included establishing a strong personal relationship with her subjects and re-photographing some of them over many years.[6][10]

During the 1960s, she taught photography at the Parsons School of Design and the Cooper Union in New York City, and the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island.[13][21] The first major exhibition of her photographs occurred at the Museum of Modern Art in a 1967 show called "New Documents", curated by John Szarkowski. The show also featured the work of Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander.[11] Some of her artistic work was done on assignment.[11] Although she continued to photograph on assignment (e.g., in 1968 she shot documentary photographs of poor sharecroppers in rural South Carolina for Esquire magazine), in general her magazine assignments decreased as her fame as an artist increased.[6][22] Szarkowski hired Arbus in 1970 to research an exhibition on photojournalism called "From the Picture Press"; it included many photographs by Weegee whose work Arbus admired.[13][15][23]

Using softer light than in her previous photography, she took a series of photographs in her later years of people with intellectual disability showing a range of emotions.[11][24] At first, Arbus considered these photographs to be "lyric and tender and pretty", but by June, 1971, she told Lisette Model that she hated them.[18]

Associating with other contemporary photographers such as Robert Frank and Saul Leiter, Arbus helped form what Jane Livingston has termed The New York School of photographers during the 1940s and 1950s. Among other photographers and artists she befriended during her career, she was close to photographer Richard Avedon; he was approximately the same age, his family had also run a Fifth Avenue department store, and many of his photographs were also characterized as detailed frontal poses.[10][18][25] Another good friend was Marvin Israel, an artist, graphic designer, and art director whom Arbus met in 1959.[1]:144[25]


Arbus experienced "depressive episodes" during her life similar to those experienced by her mother, and the episodes may have been made worse by symptoms of hepatitis.[6] Arbus wrote in 1968, "I go up and down a lot", and her ex-husband noted that she had "violent changes of mood".[5] On July 26, 1971, while living at Westbeth Artists Community in New York City, Arbus took her own life by ingesting barbiturates and slashing her wrists with a razor.[5] Marvin Israel found her body in the bathtub two days later; she was 48 years old.[5][6]

Notable photographs[edit]

Eddie Carmel, Jewish Giant, taken at Home with His Parents in the Bronx, New York, 1970

Arbus's most well-known individual photographs include:

In addition, Arbus's Box of Ten Photographs was a portfolio of selected 1963–1970 photographs in a clear Plexiglas box/frame that was designed by Marvin Israel and that was to have been issued in a limited edition of 50.[25][37] During her lifetime, however, Arbus completed only about 11 boxes and sold only 4 boxes (2 to Richard Avedon, 1 to Jasper Johns, and 1 to Bea Feitler).[1]:220[6][27] One copy printed by Neil Selkirk after Arbus's death sold for $553,600 in 2005, which was an auction record for Arbus.[27]

Notable magazine articles[edit]


Diane Arbus is the best known female photographer of her generation. As stated in the journal History of Photography in 2012, "The obsessive, self-indulgent, no-holds-barred quality of Diane Arbus's life, and the helpless, desperate nature of her death, have led to the photographer's being portrayed as a spectacularly flawed shooting star of photographic history."[40] After Arbus's death, her daughter Doon managed Arbus's estate.[5] She forbade examination of Arbus's correspondence and often denied permission for exhibition or reproduction of Arbus's photographs.[5] The editors of an academic journal published a two-page complaint in 1993 about the estate's control over Arbus's images and its attempt to censor part of an article about Arbus.[41] As of 2000, the estate would not release Arbus's 1957–1965 images of transvestites.[42] A 2005 article called the estate's allowing the British press to reproduce only fifteen photographs an attempt to "control criticism and debate".[43] The estate was also criticized in 2008 for minimizing Arbus's early commercial work.[17]

In mid–1972, Arbus was the first American photographer to have photographs displayed at the Venice Biennale; her ten photographs were described as "the overwhelming sensation of the American Pavilion" and "an extraordinary achievement".[8][44]

The Museum of Modern Art held a retrospective of Arbus's work in late 1972 that subsequently traveled around the United States and Canada through 1975; it was estimated that over seven million people saw the exhibition.[9][10] A different retrospective traveled around the world between 1973 and 1979.[9]

Doon Arbus and Marvin Israel edited and designed a 1972 book Diane Arbus (or Diane Arbus: an Aperture Monograph) accompanying the Museum of Modern Art's exhibition.[45] It contained eighty of Arbus's photographs, as well as texts from classes that Arbus gave in 1971, some of Arbus's writings, and some of Arbus's interviews.[45][46] The text in the book includes some of Arbus's most widely cited quotations such as:

In 2001–2004 the 1972 book was selected as one of the most important photobooks in history.[46][51][52][53] Over 300,000 copies of the book had been sold by 2004, unusual as "independent" photobooks are normally produced in editions of less than 5,000.[46]

A half-hour documentary film about Arbus's life and work known as Masters of Photography: Diane Arbus or Going Where I've Never Been: the Photography of Diane Arbus was produced in 1972 and released on video in 1989.[54][55]

Patricia Bosworth wrote an unauthorized biography of Arbus published in 1984. Although it is said to be "the main source" for understanding Arbus, Bosworth reportedly "received no help from Arbus's daughters, or from their father, or from two of her closest and most prescient friends, Avedon and ... Marvin Israel".[10] The book was also criticized for insufficiently considering Arbus's personal writings, for speculating about missing information, and for focusing on "sex, depression and famous people", instead of Arbus's art.[11]

Between 2003 and 2006, Arbus and her work were the subject of another major traveling exhibition, Diane Arbus Revelations, that was organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Accompanied by a book of the same name, the exhibition included artifacts such as correspondence, books, and cameras as well as 180 photographs by Arbus.[11][14][21] By "making public substantial excerpts from Arbus's letters, diaries and notebooks" the exhibition and book "undertook to claim the centre-ground on the basic facts relating to the artist's life and death".[56] Because Arbus's estate approved the exhibition and book, the chronology in the book is "effectively the first authorized biography of the photographer".[1]:121–225[6]

In 2006, the fictional film Fur: an Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus was released, starring Nicole Kidman as Arbus; it used Patricia Bosworth's book Diane Arbus: A Biography as a source of inspiration.[12][57] The Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased twenty of Arbus's photographs (valued at millions of dollars) and received Arbus's archives as a gift from her estate in 2007.[58]

Reactions of critics and others[edit]

Susan Sontag wrote an essay in 1973 entitled "Freak Show" that was critical of Arbus' work; it was reprinted in her 1977 book On Photography as "America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly".[11] Among other criticisms, Sontag opposed the lack of beauty in Arbus' work and its failure to make the viewer feel compassionate about Arbus' subjects.[59] Sontag's essay itself has been criticized as "an exercise in aesthetic insensibility" and "exemplary for its shallowness".[11][14] A 2008 essay characterized Sontag and Arbus as "Siamese twins of photographic art", because they both struggled with photography as art versus documentation (e.g., the relationship of photographer and subject).[60] A 2009 article pointed out that Arbus had photographed Sontag and her son in 1965, thereby causing one to "wonder if Sontag felt this was an unfair portrait".[59] Philip Charrier argues in a 2012 article that despite its narrowness and widely-discussed faults, Sontag's critique continues to inform much of the scholarship and criticism of Arbus' oeuvre. The article proposes overcoming this tradition by asking new questions, and by shifting the focus away from matters of biography, ethics, and Arbus' suicide.[61]

Other critics' opinions of Arbus' photographs vary widely, for example:

Arbus' subjects and their relatives also have differing views:

One 1985 study examined the opinions of 18 women viewing eight Arbus photographs.[68] The subjects tended to agree with statements based on Arbus' own words such as "These photographs show the gap between intention and effect", and tended to disagree with statements based on critics' views of Arbus such as "These photographs show the world only as a meaningless place of ugliness, horror and misery."[68]

Notable solo exhibitions[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Diane Arbus: Revelations. New York: Random House, 2003. ISBN 0-375-50620-9.
  2. ^ See: Library of Congress
  3. ^ Arbus, Diane. Diane Arbus. Millerton, New York: Aperture, 1972
  4. ^ Bosworth, Patricia. Diane Arbus: a Biography. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005. Page 250. ISBN 0-393-32661-6.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Lubow, Arthur. "Arbus Reconsidered". The New York Times, September 14, 2003. Retrieved February 7, 2010.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o DeCarlo, Tessa. "A Fresh Look at Diane Arbus". Smithsonian magazine, May 2004. Retrieved February 4, 2010.
  7. ^ Gaines, Steven. The Sky's the Limit: Passion and Property in Manhattan. New York: Little, Brown, 2005. Page 143. ISBN 0-316-60851-3.
  8. ^ a b c John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. "Fellows. Diane Arbus". Retrieved February 4, 2010.
  9. ^ a b c d e f Cheim & Read Gallery. "Diane Arbus: Biography". Retrieved February 10, 2010.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Muir, Robin. "Woman's Studies". The Independent (London), October 18, 1997. Retrieved February 4, 2010.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Rubinfien, Leo. "Where Diane Arbus Went". Art in America, volume 93, number 9, pages 65–71, 73, 75, 77, October 2005.
  12. ^ a b Dargis, Manohla. "A Visual Chronicler of Humanity's Underbelly, Draped in a Pelt of Perversity". The New York Times, November 10, 2006. Retrieved February 4, 2010.
  13. ^ a b c d e f Crookston, Peter. Extra Ordinary. The Guardian, October 1, 2005. Retrieved February 12, 2010.
  14. ^ a b c d e Schjeldahl, Peter. "Looking Back: Diane Arbus at the Met". The New Yorker, March 21, 2005. Retrieved February 4, 2010.
  15. ^ a b c d Ronnen, Meir. "The Velazquez of New York". The Jerusalem Post, October 10, 2003. Retrieved February 12, 2010.
  16. ^ a b c d Tarzan, Deloris. "Arbus - Her Brutal Lens Disclosed Aspects Previously Unseen in Her Subjects". The Seattle Times, September 21, 1986.
  17. ^ a b c O'Neill, Alistair. "A Young Woman, N.Y.C." Photography & Culture, volume 1, number 1, pp. 7–20, July 2008.
  18. ^ a b c d e f g h Sass, Louis A. "'Hyped on Clarity': Diane Arbus and the Postmodern Condition". Raritan, volume 25, number 1, pages 1-37, Summer 2005.
  19. ^ a b c d Lacayo, Richard. "Photography: Diane Arbus: Visionary Voyeurism". Time magazine, November 3, 2003. Retrieved February 12, 2010.
  20. ^ "Guggenheim Fund Grants $1,380,000". The New York Times, April 29, 1963.
  21. ^ a b c Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Diane Arbus Revelations: More About This Exhibition". March 8, 2005 – May 30, 2005. Retrieved February 7, 2010.
  22. ^ "The Other Side of Diane Arbus". Society, volume 28, number 2, pages 75–79, January/February 1991.
  23. ^ Szarkowski, John. From the Picture Press. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1973.
  24. ^ a b c Pagel, David. "Diane Arbus: Pictures from the Institutions". Los Angeles Times, May 15, 1992. Retrieved February 12, 2010.
  25. ^ a b c Gefter, Philip. "In Portraits by Others, a Look That Caught Avedon's Eye". The New York Times, August 27, 2006. Retrieved March 5, 2010.
  26. ^ a b c d e f Segal, David. "Double Exposure: a Moment with Diane Arbus Created a Lasting Impression". The Washington Post, May 12, 2005. Retrieved February 3, 2010.
  27. ^ a b c Pitman, Joanna. "Vintage Photography: the Market for Photographs Has Grown Rapidly Since the 1980s". Apollo, November 2005. Retrieved February 7, 2010.
  28. ^ a b c Brill, Lesley. "The Photography of Diane Arbus". Journal of American Culture, volume 5, issue 1, pages 69–76, Spring 1982.
  29. ^ a b c d Kimmelman, Michael. "The Profound Vision of Diane Arbus: Flaws in Beauty, Beauty in Flaws". The New York Times, March 11, 2005. Retrieved February 12, 2010.
  30. ^ http://missmena.wordpress.com/2009/03/03/%E2%80%9Ca-young-brooklyn-family-going-for-a-sunday-outing-nyc-1966%E2%80%9D-diane-arbus/
  31. ^ a b Artnet. "Art Market Watch". May 4, 2004. Retrieved February 6, 2010.
  32. ^ Artnet. "Art Market Watch". May 13, 2005. Retrieved February 16, 2010.
  33. ^ Sotheby's. "A Family on the Lawn One Sunday in Westchester, N.Y." April 8, 2008. Retrieved February 7, 2010.
  34. ^ a b Hume, Christopher. "Photography's Tragic Poet of the Bizarre". Toronto Star, January 11, 1991.
  35. ^ "The Jewish Giant". Sound Portraits Productions, October 6, 1999. Retrieved February 5, 2010.
  36. ^ Christie's. "A Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents, 1967". October 18, 2007. Retrieved February 6, 2010.
  37. ^ Pollock, Lindsay. "The Arbus Traveling Circus". The New York Sun, April 21, 2005. Retrieved February 5, 2010.
  38. ^ Wolfe, Tom. "A City Built of Clay". New York, July 6, 2008. Retrieved February 12, 2010.
  39. ^ Brizuela, Natalia. "Mirror, a Hollow in the Wall. Your Portrait, a Hollow in the Wall. Ana Cristina Cesar: Poetry and Photography". Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies, volume 16, issue 1, pages 27–44, March 2007.
  40. ^ Charrier, Philip "On Diane Arbus: Establishing a Revisionist Framework of Analysis". History of Photography, volume 36, number 4, page 422, November 2012.
  41. ^ a b c d Armstrong, Carol. "Biology, Destiny, Photography: Difference According to Diane Arbus". October, volume 66, pages 28–54, Autumn 1993.
  42. ^ Trainer, Laureen. "The Missing Photographs: an Examination of Diane Arbus's Images of Transvestites and Homosexuals from 1957 to 1965". Athanor, volume 18, pages 77–80, 2000.
  43. ^ a b "Diane Arbus's Carnival of Cruelty". Evening Standard (London), October 14, 2005. Retrieved February 14, 2010.
  44. ^ a b Kramer, Hilton. "Arbus Photos, at Venice, Show Power". The New York Times, June 17, 1972.
  45. ^ a b c Arbus, Diane. Diane Arbus. Millerton, New York: Aperture, 1972. ISBN 0-912334-40-1.
  46. ^ a b c Parr, Martin, and Gerry Badger. The Photobook: a History. Volume I. London & New York: Phaidon, 2004. ISBN 0-7148-4285-0.
  47. ^ a b Hughes, Robert. "Art: to Hades with Lens". Time, November 13, 1972. Retrieved February 12, 2010.
  48. ^ a b Goldman, Judith. "Diane Arbus: The Gap Between Intention and Effect". Art Journal, volume 34, issue 1, pages 30–35, Fall 1974.
  49. ^ a b Greer, Germaine. "Wrestling with Diane Arbus". The Guardian, October 8, 2005. Retrieved February 3, 2010.
  50. ^ Feeney, Mark. "She Opened Our Eyes. Photographer Diane Arbus Presented a New Way of Seeing." Boston Globe, November 2, 2003. Retrieved February 15, 2010.
  51. ^ Caslin, Jean, and D. Clarke Evans. Building a Photographic Library. San Antonio: Texas Photographic Society, 2001. ISBN 1-931427-00-3.
  52. ^ Roth, Andrew, editor. The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the 20th Century. New York: PPP Editions in association with Roth Horowitz LLC, 2001. ISBN 0-9670774-4-3.
  53. ^ Roth, Andrew, editor. The Open Book: a History of the Photographic Book from 1878 to the Present. Göteborg, Sweden: Hasselblad Center, 2004.
  54. ^ Going Where I've Never Been: the Photography of Diane Arbus (1972) at the Internet Movie Database
  55. ^ Traditional Fine Arts Organization. "American Photography. DVD/VHS Videos". Retrieved February 12, 2010.
  56. ^ Charrier, Philip "On Diane Arbus: Establishing a Revisionist Framework of Analysis". History of Photography, volume 36, number 4, page 422, November 2012.
  57. ^ a b Zacharek, Stephanie. "Fur: an Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus" (review). Salon.com, November 10, 2006. Retrieved February 3, 2010.
  58. ^ Vogel, Carol. "A Big Gift for the Met: the Arbus Archives". The New York Times, December 18, 2007. Retrieved February 5, 2010.
  59. ^ a b Parsons, Sarah. "Sontag's Lament: Emotion, Ethics, and Photography". Photography & Culture, volume 2, number 3, pages 289–302, November 2009.
  60. ^ Baird, Lisa A. "Susan Sontag and Diane Arbus: the Siamese Twins of Photographic Art". Women's Studies, volume 37, issue 8, pages 971–986, December 2008.
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  62. ^ Kozloff, Max. "Photography". The Nation, volume 204, pages 571–573, May 1, 1967.
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  64. ^ Perl, Jed. "Not-So-Simple Simplicity". The New Republic, October 27, 2003. Retrieved February 7, 2010.
  65. ^ O'Brien, Barbara. "Learning to Read: the Epic Narratives of Diane Arbus and August Sander". Art New England, volume 25, number 6, pages 22–23, 67, October/November 2004.
  66. ^ a b Johnson, Ken. "Art in Review; Diane Arbus". The New York Times, September 30, 2005. Retrieved February 14, 2010.
  67. ^ Koestenbaum, Wayne. "Diane Arbus and Humiliation". Studies in Gender & Sexuality, volume 8, issue 4, pages 345–347, Fall 2007.
  68. ^ a b Smith, C. Zoe. "Audience Reception of Diane Arbus' Photographs". Journal of American Culture, volume 8, issue 1, pages 13–28, Spring 1985.
  69. ^ Thornton, Gene. "Narrative Works - and Arbus." The New York Times, August 31, 1980.
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  72. ^ Dault, Gary Michael. "Diane Arbus. Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation, Toronto". C Magazine, number 29, Spring 1991. Retrieved February 10, 2010.
  73. ^ "Weekend's Best". Daily News of Los Angeles, May 29, 1992.
  74. ^ Morgan, Susan. "Loitering with Intent: Diane Arbus at the Movies". Parkett, number 47, pages 177–183, September 1996.
  75. ^ Bishop, Louise. "The Challenge of Beauty". Creative Review, volume 17, number 63, December 1997.
  76. ^ Woodward, Richard B. "Art; Diane Arbus's Family Values". The New York Times, October 5, 2003. Retrieved February 10, 2010.
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  82. ^ a b Davies, Lucy. "Diane Arbus: a Flash of Familiarity". The Telegraph (London), May 6, 2009. Retrieved February 10, 2010.
  83. ^ Cooper, Neil. "New Diane Arbus exhibition set for Dean Gallery, Edinburgh". The List (Scotland), February 23, 2010. Retrieved March 5, 2010.
  84. ^ Baker, Kenneth. "Fraenkel Gallery Pairs Sculptor and Arbus". San Francisco Chronicle, January 7, 2010. Retrieved February 11, 2010.
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  87. ^ http://www.museumsportal-berlin.de/en/exhibitions/exhibition-details/diane-arbus-photographs.html
  88. ^ http://www.foam.org/press/2012/diane-arbus

Further reading[edit]


Book chapters[edit]

Journal articles[edit]

External links[edit]