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Diane Arbus Documents

Edited by Max Rosenberg / Foreword by Lucas Zwirner and Jeffrey Fraenkel
Published by David Zwirner Books
Distributed by Simon & Schuster

About The Book

A groundbreaking publication offering insight into the critical conversations and misconceptions around this unrivaled artist’s works.

Best known for her penetrating images exploring what it means to be human, Diane Arbus is a pivotal and singular figure in American postwar photography. Arbus’s black-and-white photographs demolish aesthetic conventions and upend all certainties. Both lauded and criticized for her photographs of people deemed “outsiders,” Arbus continues to be a lightning rod for a wide range of opinions surrounding her subject matter and approach. Critics and writers have described her work as “sinister” and “appalling” as well as “revelatory,” “sincere,” and “compassionate.” Through an assemblage of articles, criticism, and essays from 1967 to the present, Diane Arbus Documents charts the reception of the revolutionary photographer's work.

Illuminating fifty years of evolution in the field of art criticism, Documents provides a new template for understanding the work of any formidable artist. Organized in eleven sections that focus on major exhibitions and significant events emerging from Arbus’s work, as well as on her methods and intentions, the sixty-nine facsimiles of previously published articles and essays––an archive by all accounts––trace the discourse on Arbus, contextualizing her inimitable oeuvre. Supplemented by an annotated bibliography of more than six hundred entries and a comprehensive exhibition history, Documents serves as an important resource for photographers, researchers, art historians, and art critics, in addition to students of art criticism and the interested reader alike.


Hilton Als, The New Yorker, 1995
“The harsh light Arbus leveled at her subjects—‘A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y. 1970,’ ‘Loser at a Diaper Derby, N.J. 1967’—was an indication not of a merciless vision but of her desire to enhance her subjects’ presence, which she considered ‘terrific.’ Like [Andy] Warhol, Arbus used the dumbest language possible to describe her work. As though she were a child always on the verge of rebuilding the universe through found objects—or found images—no language but the most rudimentarily joyful could describe the moment when she happened upon the signposts leading toward her self-expression.”

Cindy Nemser, The Feminist Art Journal, 1973
“She makes us squirm, twist, avert our eyes, sneak a look back, giggle, and ultimately convince ourselves that our state is infinitely superior to the one that confronts us in the black and white two-dimensional image before us.”

Susan Sontag, The New York Review of Books, 1973
“Arbus’s work shows people who are pathetic, pitiable, as well as horrible, repulsive, but it does not arouse any compassionate feelings. Nevertheless, despite this evident coolness of tone, the photographs have been scoring moral points all along with critics. For what might be judged as their dissociated and naïve point of view, the photographs have been praised for their candor and for an unsentimental empathy with their subjects. What is actually their aggressiveness toward the public has been turned into a moral accomplishment: that the photographs don’t allow the viewer any distance from the subject.”

Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker, 2005
“Sontag’s notorious attack on Arbus, in an essay from 1973 that became the linchpin of her book ‘On Photography’ (1977), passed one test of great criticism. It asked the right question—about photography’s claim to be a full-fledged and legitimate art—at the right time, when Arbus’s work had advanced that claim with unprecedented force. Otherwise, the essay is an exercise in aesthetic insensibility, eschewing description of the art for aspersions, often pithy, on the artist’s ethics. ‘Arbus’s interest in freaks expresses a desire to violate her own innocence,’ Sontag wrote. That’s probably right, but it’s incidental to photographs that transcend the interest and desire of their maker and, in the process, shatter the idea of ‘freaks’ as a stable category of experience. Sontag rushed to rescue the idea. 

“‘In photographing dwarfs, you don’t get majesty and beauty,’ she insisted. ‘You get dwarfs.’ She noted with bemusement that in Arbus’s pictures people who are ‘pathetic, pitiable, as well as repulsive’ look ‘cheerful, self-accepting, matter-of-fact.’ She wondered, ‘Do they know how grotesque they are? It seems as if they don’t.’ It’s an interesting complaint, suggesting that people who look or behave in unusual ways merit sympathy from the rest of us only if they visibly assent to our disgust with them. Saying such things shows how far Sontag was willing to go in a campaign that aimed, beyond Arbus, at photography itself.”

Hilton Kramer, The New York Times, 1972
“The power of these pictures does not derive from their subject matter alone. It derives in equal degree from the style Miss Arbus developed to deal with them. This style, which lavishes an extraordinary candor and sympathy on her subjects, is almost an antistyle. It is the complete opposite of the kind of photographic vision that aspires to ‘catch’ a split-second moment of glimpsed experience and ‘frame’ it forever in a perfect composition.”

Holland Cotter, The New York Times, 2016
“Street photography was the advanced mode of the day, and practitioners like Lee Friedlander, William Klein, Helen Levitt and Garry Winogrand all claimed New York City as their turf. So did Lisette Model, a Viennese émigré with whom Arbus studied briefly. Ms. Model didn’t give her student much formal advice. Instead, she urged her to ease away from the stance of objectivity then considered requisite for serious photography and instead establish emotional relationships with her subjects, and see where that would take her. For Arbus, the advice was heaven-sent. It gave her permission to be the artist she was ready to be.”

Germaine Greer, The Guardian, 2005
“What [Arbus’s] work does not show is compassion, which is something to be grateful for. If I’d thought Arbus felt compassion for me, I’d have socked her.”

About The Author

Diane Arbus (1923–1971) is one of the most original and influential artists of the twentieth century. She studied photography with Berenice Abbott, Alexey Brodovitch, and Lisette Model and had her first published photographs appear in Esquire in 1960. In 1963 and 1966 she was awarded John Simon Guggenheim Fellowships and was one of three photographers whose work was the focus of New Documents, John Szarkowski’s landmark exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1967. Arbus’s depictions of couples, children, female impersonators, nudists, New York City pedestrians, suburban families, circus performers, and celebrities, among others, span the breadth of the postwar American social sphere and constitute a diverse and singularly compelling portrait of humanity.

Product Details

  • Publisher: David Zwirner Books (September 27, 2022)
  • Length: 496 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781644230657

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Raves and Reviews

"It’s at once a valuable resource for historians and students of art history as well as a fascinating read for fans of contemporary photography."

– The Strategist, New York Magazine

“A valuable resource for historians and students of art history as well as a fascinating read for fans of contemporary photography.”

– The Strategist, New York Magazine

“By foregrounding the literature on Arbus, the show acknowledged that the artist’s reputation has often overshadowed her images. Thankfully, it also allowed the photographs to speak for themselves.”

– Art in America

"a lavishly produced compendium of Arbus criticism over the last half-century."

– Arthur Lubow, The New York Times

“‘MoMA just thought this [their groundbreaking 1972 Arbus retrospective] was going to be another show,’ said Jeffrey Fraenkel, the dealer who co-represents Arbus’s estate. But ‘it was an earthquake,’ a once-in-a-generation moment. This week, for its 50th anniversary, Fraenkel and David Zwirner gallery are restaging the exhibition at Zwirner’s West 20th Street outpost in Manhattan. They are also publishing a 500-page book of writings about Arbus called ‘Documents’...MoMA’s Arbus show has since taken on an element of myth, but ‘Documents’ also chronicles a significant backlash.”

– M.H. Miller, T: The New York Times Style Magazine

"A doorstop scrapbook that reproduces a half-century’s worth of writing about an artist who, as Avedon once observed, ‘made the act of looking an act of such intelligence, that to look at so-called ordinary things is to become responsible for what you see.'"

– The New Yorker

“...[the book is] even more illuminating when it comes to illustrating Arbus’s impact…includes commentary from no fewer than 55 esteemed artists and critics…the book illustrates one of the most striking things about the polemic nature of Arbus’s work.”

– Stephanie Eckardt, W Magazine

“...a look back at how one single museum showing proved to the public that photography merits the status of fine art.”

– Stephanie Eckardt, W Magazine

“To engage with Arbus’s pictures is to engage with what it means to take a photograph of another human.”

– Artnet News

“A vast, absorbing bibliography of the critical writings published over the last five decades, Documents is testament to Arbus’s enduring legacy, an artist who has continuously been a part of the conversation about looking and feeling.”

– Cultured Magazine

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