The Real Story Behind Diane Arbus’s ‘In the Park’ Photos

It was at the height of her fame when a 48-year-old Diane Arbus took her life in 1971. She was a photographer, who today is revered as one of the most influential and original artists of the 20th century.But back then she was simply a woman with a camera and a curiosity that set her apart from the stiff images that graced the glossy magazines of her time. She was drawn to the unknown, drawn to the “freaks” and the outcasts, drawn away from the glitz and glamour of a life lived in New York’s Upper East Side. She wanted real, raw images, and she lived her life trying to find them.

45 years after her death we are still celebrating Diane Arbus. Currently, until June 28th, New York’s Lévy Gorvy Gallery is hosting an exhibition called Diane Arbus: In the Park dedicated to those influential photographs Diane took in New York’s parks in the ’60’s.

These said parks were Central Park and Washington Square and the photographs she took in them played a massive role in the direction of Diane’s budding photography career — and ultimately photography in general. Already in the industry, her and her husband, Allan, were well-known for their fashion editorial work and often contributed to such big-name publications as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Glamour. Yet she was left unfulfilled. She struggled to find purpose in the world of high fashion: dressing up models just so, in borrowed clothes, so they could make her or some other art director’s vision come to life wasn’t what she imagined herself doing. She longed for intimacy with her subjects. She longed to photograph real people, wearing real people clothes, doing what they loved.

Diane Arbus
Two ladies walking in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1963
© The Estate of Diane Arbus

One day, while posing little girls on a swing set for Vogue, she realized she was done. She announced confidently and simply, “I can’t do it anymore” and with that, left the comfortable world of commercial photography in search of her true passion — something that women back then didn’t often do.

Armed with her 35mm Nikon she took to the parks where she quickly grew enchanted with their creatures. Growing up privileged to a posh family, these were the people she had never had the chance to be around before — they were the drag performers, the cross-dressers, the winos, the “hippy junkies, and the really tough amazingly hard-core lesbians,” as she called them in one of her published diary entries. She developed such a deep interest in the lives of these fascinating people and would arrive day after day, photographing her subjects in their element, striving to show their vulnerability.

As she got more confident she would take more and more risks, always exploring, even if it meant putting herself in danger. She would do what she needed to do in order to get the shot — whether that meant approaching unknown people in the park, hanging in dark doorways until something exciting happened, or following strangers on the street.

What she sought, as much as the photograph, was to know the soul on the other side of the lens, to film it in its everyday life. She viewed the experience of getting the picture as an adventure — and the subsequent photo, a trophy. It is what made her feel alive.

Diane Arbus
A young man and his girlfriend with hot dogs in the park, N.Y.C. 1971
© The Estate of Diane Arbus

But it wasn’t enough.

The personal life of Diane Arbus is often dissected almost as much as her famous art. She may be one of the best photographers in America’s history, but she’s also been called one of the most controversial.

Her work and personal life often intermingled. In striving to photograph her subject’s most intimate moments, she would sometimes cross the line, following them home to photograph them in their bedrooms… sometimes lying about what exactly she was photographing, sometimes portraying them in unflattering ways.

When her marriage ended to Allan, although amicably, she moved out on her own, cut her hair, and fully embraced the artist life. She viewed sex in a similar way as she did her photographs. Instead of it being an act of love, it was simply a way to get to know another person. In the mid-60’s she started photographing sex — and then joining in, whether it be orgies, sleeping with colleagues, strangers or friends.

She even admitted to a psychotherapist, weeks before her death, that she and her brother, Howard, had continued a sexual relationship since they were children.

During this time she was also in a 10-year open relationship with the married artist, Marvin Israel who had made it clear he would never leave his wife. Diane was content with this arrangement, however, once she found out that her 26-year-old daughter, Doon, had also been sleeping with him she had simply had enough. Just like the day on the Vogue set when she quit her commercial photography career with a simple “I can’t do it anymore” she chose then to stop exploring, stop chasing her passion, and ended her life with slit wrists and pills, clothed in her bathtub.

A year after her death, Doon paid her respects by allowing her mother’s art to be included in the Venice Biennale as well as a posthumous retrospective at MoMA. Her work is now sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars and has since been celebrated all over the world.

In her death, Diane is remembered as a trail blazer for artists to not be afraid to take chances, and for women everywhere to follow their dreams and live their lives how they really want to.

Diane would have been 94 this year, and I like to think she would be pleased at how far we have come in our acceptance of people. We all have a little freak and a little outcast in us, and because of Diane’s curiosity — because she chose to step out of her comfort zone and explore real life —  we don’t have to be afraid of being different.

If you’re in New York, stop by Lévy Gorvy and immerse yourself in Diane’s In the Park photos… then take a stroll, because just a few blocks away, you’ll find Central Park. And I dare you to try to see it as Diane did.

Lindsay DeLong is the Managing Editor of The Fullest. She’s currently finding her inner Diane with her Fuji disposable — with flash. Find her at lindsay@thefullest.com or on social media via @lindizzaster.

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