3 Ways Diane Arbus’s Work Provoked

New at David Zwirner

Image: Diane Arbus

BY: Jes Zurell

Diane Arbus loved misfits. In Untitled, the current exhibition of her work at David Zwirner which includes sixty-six images of New York’s finest oddballs, the last years of Arbus’s life lay bare her perspective. Following her suicide, the Museum of Modern Art held a retrospective of her work which garnered the highest attendance of any exhibition in MoMA’s history to date.

She was a quiet force of nature which flourished around those the world belligerently labeled “freaks.” Her work, much like her death, hit the photography world of her time with the kind of shock value even Kim Kardashian couldn’t match. If you haven’t spent any time with Arbus’s work yet, here are three reasons why you should.

diane arbus photograph of a woman in New York

She sought to give underserved communities more recognition, respect, and representation.

“Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot,” Arbus once wrote. “Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. For freaks, they were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”

diane arbus photograph of a young woman with Downs Syndrome


She took a hard look at the things society found hard to look at.

In his 2003 New York Times Magazine article, “Arbus Reconsidered,” Arthur Lubow states, “She was fascinated by people who were visibly creating their own identities—cross-dressers, nudists, sideshow performers, tattooed men, the nouveau riche, the movie-star fans—and by those who were trapped in a uniform that no longer provided any security or comfort.”

Diane Arbus photograph of a young drag performer


She created work that translates across decades.

One of the most enduring features of Arbus’s work is that it continues to spur debate. Her subjects were provocative–strippers, painted ladies, degenerates, the disabled and the different–but so was her attitude in her work. The best and most surviving part of any artwork is its ability to spark conversations regardless of the current decade. Her work accomplishes that now as well as it did in the mid-century.

“[Photographs] are the proof that something was there and no longer is,” she once said. “Like a stain. And the stillness of them is boggling. You can turn away but when you come back they’ll still be there looking at you.”

We’re still looking.


Diane Arbus photograph of a young boy on the street


Diane Arbus self-portrait


Diane Arbus photograph of a woman with a toy dog


Diane Arbus photograph of a man and child in a subway car


Diane Arbus photograph of a blonde woman with heavy eyeliner


Diane Arbus photograph of a group of people


Diane Arbus Untitled shows at David Zwirner’s West 20th Street location in New York through December 15, 2018. The exhibition celebrates the inaugural collaboration of The Estate of Diane Arbus, David Zwirner and Fraenkel Gallery, and will include a number of images taken between 1969 and 1971, many of which have never before been seen by the public. All images included in this article were taken by Diane Arbus.