Focus on the Collection: Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus, Two friends in the park, N.Y.C., 1965.

Diane Arbus, Two friends in the park, N.Y.C., 1965. Gelatin silver print, 26.2 × 25.1 cm (image); 35.6 × 27.8 cm (sheet). National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Purchased 2022. © The Estate of Diane Arbus. Photo: NGC 

Diane Arbus took the photograph Two friends in the park, N.Y.C. 1965 in Washington Square Park during the summer of 1965. By this point, she had begun to photograph a variety of individuals associated with subcultures, such as bodybuilders, youth gang members, nudists, circus actors, and female impersonators.  

Reacting against her own upbringing, which she termed “bourgeois,” Arbus sought to express a personal vision through subject matter beyond her everyday world and its routines. Creativity in this sense was a mingling of subjective and objective approaches, combining the concept of the photograph as a type of reportage with aspects of a private journey.  

Arbus wrote in an article in Harper’s Bazaar that included portraits of eccentrics, “These are five singular people who appear like metaphors somewhere further out than we do; beckoned, not driven; invented by belief; each the author and hero of a real dream by which our own courage and cunning are tested and tried; so that we may wonder all over again what is veritable and inevitable and possible and what is to become whoever we may be.”1 This might be interpreted as a description of what Arbus was searching for in many of her subjects. 

The early 1960s are pivotal in her development as a photographer. She changed her camera from a Nikon 35mm to the square-format Rolleiflex which, despite being a frustrating learning experience, supplied her with higher-quality, more-detailed images, and ultimately came to be recognized as a distinctive feature of her work. The more formal presence of the medium format camera may have also supported her working method, because it extends the photographic session and provides subjects with an opportunity to perform imagined or desired presentations of self to the camera. Even Arbus was sometimes surprised at the responses she elicited. 

Diane Arbus, Two Friends at Home, 1965. Gelatin silver print.

Diane Arbus, Two Friends at Home, 1965. Gelatin silver print, 35.6 x 27.9 cm (sheet). Gift of Danielle and David Ganek, 2005. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. © The Estate of Diane Arbus

In the photograph Two friends in the park, N.Y.C. 1965, two individuals of ambiguous gender pose candidly and openly for the camera. Viewers are left wondering about their relationship to one another and to the photographer. The work is related to another photograph Arbus took the same year: Two friends at home, N.Y.C. 1965 in the collection of The Met.  The same person who appears in the park photograph appears in this work, looking out at the camera.3 On the back of this image the artist has written “DIANE ARBUS", "LESBIANS AT HOME NYC. 1965.”  

Diane Arbus, Miss Stormé de Larverie, the Lady Who Appears to be a Gentleman, N.Y.C., 1961. Gelatin silver print.

Diane Arbus, Miss Stormé de Larverie, the Lady Who Appears to be a Gentleman, N.Y.C., 1961. Gelatin silver print, 17.8 × 12.4 cm (image); 35.2 × 27.8 cm (sheet). The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.The Gay Block Collection, gift of Gay Block. © The Estate of Diane Arbus

The work has a further link to another taken by Arbus in the park of Stormé DeLarverie, also known as the “Stonewall Lesbian.” DeLarverie was a celebrated Black cross-dressing drag king lesbian4, who later famously struck back at the policemen who clubbed her outside New York’s Stonewall Inn. The event was a catalyst for the Stonewall Riots. 

Arbus strove to capture each subject’s strength and vulnerability: for her, the act of photographing was an adventure and a means of connecting with her subjects, be they apparently ordinary people or those generally regarded as outcasts by society. In Two friends in the park, N.Y.C 1965, the subjects present themselves confidently to the camera and photographer. The work is a testament to Arbus’ ability to engage with her subjects, as well as her success in capturing less conventional relationships and lifestyles that challenged the norm. 

Learn More About the Artist… 

Internationally acclaimed for her photography, Diane Arbus (née Nemerov) was born in New York City in 1923, where she lived and worked until her death in 1971. She married Allan Arbus in 1941, with whom she had two children.5 Allan gave Diane her first camera as a wedding gift, which led to the beginning of her personal photographic practice. 

Around 1946, she and Allan established a photography business. Early on in their editorial career, they shot advertisements for Diane’s father’s Fifth Avenue department store, and later acquired clients such as Glamour and Vogue. When producing these commercial works, Allan acted as the photographer and Diane as the art director on set.7 Diane eventually grew tired of this role, and in 1956 quit the partnership to begin focusing on her own photographic pursuits, turning her lens to various people and communities — mostly around New York — many of whom were typically viewed as society’s “outsiders.”  

Known for her ability to connect deeply with her subjects, Arbus’ documentary-style portraits often seem to explore the relationship between identity and reality, illusion and belief, and reflect the empathy she felt for the lives of the people she photographed. Early in her career, she studied photography, most significantly in workshops given by Lisette Model.8  

During the 1960s, Arbus taught photography courses, took on various types of photography commissions, and had more than 100 photographs printed in publications such as Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar. In 1963 and 1966, she was awarded Guggenheim Fellowships, and in 1967 she was featured, along with two other photographers, in New Documents, a group show presented at the Museum of Modern Art.9 In 1970, she made a portfolio of original prints entitled A box of ten photographs, the contents of which were largely responsible for catapulting the medium into the realm of serious art. 10 Arbus took her life at the age of 48.11 


1 Diane Arbus, “The Full Circle” Harper’s Bazaar (November 1961), p. 133. 

2 Elisabeth Sussman and Doon Arbus, “A Chronology, 1923–1971” Diane Arbus Revelations (New York: Random House, 2003), p. 169.

3  It is also highly likely that the person in glasses is the other person seen in the park photograph.

Even though Arbus wished to include this photograph in “The Full Circle” article in Harper’s Bazaar, the image never appeared in the published article.

5 Elisabeth Sussman and Doon Arbus. 

6 Elisabeth Sussman and Doon Arbus. 

7 Elisabeth Sussman and Doon Arbus. 

8 “Diane Arbus, Legendary New York Photographer, Celebrated in Retrospective at Metropolitan Museum,” The Met, (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005),  

9 “Diane Arbus, Legendary New York Photographer.” 

10 “Diane Arbus: A box of ten photographs.” The Smithsonian American Art Museum.

11 “Diane Arbus, Legendary New York Photographer.” 

About the Author

Supported by

Scotiabank Photography Program


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Programme de photographie Banque Scotia