There’s very few photographers who stand the test of time and continue to be recognized for the work they’ve accomplished. One such individual is Diane Arbus.

The striking black and white photographs of legendary American photographer Diane Arbus (1923–1971) revolutionized portraiture, through their range of subjects and their style. Primarily made in and around New York City, Arbus selected her subjects – including couples, children, nudists, suburban families, circus performers, and celebrities, among others– for their singularity. In 2016, thanks to the generosity of a small group of donors, the AGO acquired the world’s second largest collection of Arbus photographs. This winter, the AGO honours that landmark acquisition of 522 works with a major solo exhibition, the first in Canada in almost three decades. Highlighting her evolution as an artist over fifteen years, Diane Arbus: Photographs, 1956–1971 features 150 photographs and is curated by Sophie Hackett, the AGO’s Curator, Photography.
Opening in the Sam & Ayala Zacks Pavillion on Feb. 22, 2020, Diane Arbus: Photographs, 1956–1971 is free for AGO Members, AGO Annual Pass holders and visitors 25 years and under. Annual Passes provide unlimited admission for an entire year for only $35, including the AGO Collection and all special exhibitions. For more details about the Annual Pass or to become a Member, visit
For the first time, the full sweep of Arbus’s career will be presented chronologically. The exhibition opens with an arresting self-portrait from 1945 and begins in 1956, the year Arbus decided to seriously pursue photography. The artist Lisette Model was an important mentor during this period to Arbus, and these early works reveal an artist fascinated by the range of humanity and life as it unfolded on the street. She rendered her subjects’ most distinguishing features and attitudes in 35mm film and intimate, sometimes grainy, prints. Exploring various sub-cultures and locales, her work throughout the 1950’s brings into focus a wonderfully eclectic cast of characters, as seen in Many clowns in a car, NYC, 1960 and Woman and a dwarf backstage at the circus, N.Y.C., 1958.
In 1962, Arbus abandons her 35mm camera, in favour of a 2 ¼ Rolleiflex camera with its distinctive square image. This shift to a larger format marks her emergence as a mature artist. In the decade that follows, Arbus created many of her most iconic works in her direct, sharply focused signature style. These portraits, whether published in the pages of magazines like Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar or presented in exhibitions, like MOMA’s New Documentsexhibition in 1967, reflect the unique relationships Arbus forged with her subjects. This period is represented in the exhibition with numerous examples including Puerto Rican woman with a beauty mark, N.Y.C. (1965); Identical twins, Roselle, N.J. (1966); and Mrs. Martin Luther King (1965).
“Arbus was fascinated by the differences between us as human beings and was moved to describe those differences in as clear-eyed and precise a way as she could. In fifteen short years, she produced perhaps the most compelling and demanding body of portraits the 20th century had seen to that point. The direct, even confrontational, gaze of the individuals in her photographs remains bracing to our eyes still today provoking recognition, empathy and unease,” said Sophie Hackett, the AGO’s curator of Photography. “The acquisition of these works in 2016 was a landmark one for the AGO and furthers our goal of building a collection that reflects the artistic, historical, and social impact of the medium.”
Diane Arbus: Photographs, 1956–1971 runs until May 17, 2020 and will be a core exhibition of the 2020 Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival.
Diane Arbus revolutionized the art she practiced. Born in 1923, Arbus grew up in an affluent New York family that owned a department store on Fifth Avenue. At age 18 in 1941 she married Allan Arbus and for a decade the couple worked together – he as photographer, she as stylist, producing photographs for fashion magazines. Although she started making pictures for herself in the early 1940s, it was only in 1956, when she numbered a roll of film #1, that she began seriously pursuing the work for which she has come to be known. During the 1960’s she published more than 100 photographs in leading magazines like Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar. Arbus was awarded Guggenheim Fellowships in 1963 and 1966 for her project, “American Rites, Manners and Customs”. The photographs she produced in those years attracted a great deal of critical and popular attention when a group was selected for the legendary 1967 New Documents show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. When she died by suicide in 1971, she was already something of a legend among serious photographers, although only a relatively small number of her most important pictures were widely known. In a career that lasted little more than fifteen years, Diane Arbus produced a body of work whose style and content have secured her a place as one of the most significant artists of the 20th century.
@AGOToronto| #ArbusAGO
Diane Arbus: Photographs, 1958 – 1971 is organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario

About the Author

Bryen Dunn is a freelance journalist with a focus on travel, lifestyle, entertainment and hospitality. He has an extensive portfolio of celebrity interviews with musicians, actors and other public personalities. He enjoys discovering delicious eats, tasting spirited treats, and being mesmerized by musical beats.