Known for her candid, raw, and often unconventional images, Diane Arbus captured the human experience in ways that challenged societal norms and paved the way for a new generation of portrait photographers. 

Diane Arbus was born Diane Nemerov on March 14, 1923, in New York City. She grew up in a privileged household, with her family owning a successful department store. Despite the affluence she grew up in, Arbus had a troubled childhood and often felt like an outsider, and would in time become drawn to the gritty and unconventional aspects of life.

Her early exposure to art and photography, particularly the works of her parents' artist friends, shaped her interest in the medium.

Arbus's formal training in photography began in her late teens, under the guidance of photographer Lisette Model. Model's bold and direct approach to photography deeply influenced Arbus's own style. She began her career working as a fashion photographer with her husband, Allan Arbus, but quickly grew disenchanted with the industry’s limitations - her true passion lay in capturing the world around her in a raw and unfiltered way. By the late 1950s, she was pursuing her own unique photographic projects.

A Unique Style

Arbus’s style was characterized by its ability to capture her subjects in an unvarnished, intimate way. She often worked with marginalized groups and people on the fringes of society—those typically ignored or stigmatized. From circus performers to people with disabilities, Arbus sought out individuals who were different from the mainstream - her approach was both candid and compassionate, revealing her subjects' vulnerabilities and quirks while preserving their dignity. This perspective distinguished her work from more polished, traditional portraiture.

What set Arbus apart was her ability to capture the essence of her subjects without judgment. Her portraits often contained an underlying vulnerability, revealing the complex, multifaceted nature of human beings. Arbus's approach was unflinchingly honest, as she sought to depict people as they were, rather than conforming to conventional beauty standards.

Notable Works and Exhibitions

Diane Arbus gained recognition for her series of black-and-white portraits taken with a Rolleiflex camera. Her groundbreaking work was featured in prominent publications such as *Esquire*, *Harper's Bazaar*, and *The New Yorker*. In 1967, her work was included in a major exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), titled "New Documents." This exhibition introduced her unique style to a wider audience and solidified her place in the art world. She was also the first photographer to have her work displayed at the Venice Biennale, solidifying her status as a trailblazer in the field.

Her most iconic photographs include "Child with a Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park" and "Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey." These images are emblematic of her distinctive style—provocative, thought-provoking, and memorable.

Lessons for Headshot Photographers

While Diane Arbus’s work might at first glance seem far removed from the world of headshot photography, her approach offers valuable insights.

Empathy and Understanding: Arbus’s portraits exude empathy and understanding. Headshot photographers can apply this approach to their work by taking the time to connect with their subjects and truly understand their stories.

Capture Uniqueness: Like Arbus, headshot photographers should strive to capture what makes each subject unique. Every individual has distinct qualities that can shine through in a headshot.

Explore Different Perspectives: Arbus’s ability to look beyond the surface and reveal the depth of her subjects is a skill every headshot photographer should develop. Experiment with angles, lighting, and backgrounds to bring out the best in your subject.

Embrace Candid Moments: Although headshots are often more posed and controlled, candid moments can bring authenticity to your work. Arbus’s raw style is a reminder of the power of capturing spontaneous moments.

Create a Connection: Arbus’s photography often conveys a strong sense of connection between the photographer and the subject. Building rapport with your clients will result in more genuine, compelling headshots.


For all her success however, Arbus faced significant challenges throughout her career. Her commitment to capturing the raw and sometimes unsettling aspects of humanity led to controversy and mixed reactions from critics. Some accused her of exploiting her subjects, while others praised her for revealing the truth of the human condition.

Despite her untimely death in 1971 at the age of 48, her legacy continues to inspire photographers and artists around the world. Arbus's work has been the subject of numerous retrospectives and exhibitions, cementing her status as one of the most influential portrait photographers in history.

Diane Arbus’s willingness to explore unconventional subjects and challenge societal norms paved the way for future generations of photographers, and serves as a reminder that every individual has a story worth telling, and it's our job as photographers to bring that story to life.

Child with a Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park

Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey

A Young Man in Curlers at Home on West 20th Street