Richard Avedon remained his favorite. Avedon dominated the magazine throughout the fifties and into the sixties with his wit and dazzling inventiveness. He covered the French collections on location in Paris, collaborating like a movie director with his models—Dovima, Sunny Harnett, Suzy Parker, and the exotic China Machado—and every image Avedon made was fraught with glamour and passion and a hectic gaiety.
Someone at Condé Nast said, “Diane and Allan were classy people whose pictures sold fashion, but you didn’t get excited by them.” In her history of fashion photography, Nancy Hall-Duncan writes, “The work of Diane and Allan Arbus was done in the studied mold of the time, having no real influence in the field.”
Whether or not Allan cared about being influential as a photographer, nobody knew; he was a self-contained man who kept such thoughts to himself. He had tried to become a serious photographer in Italy, experimenting with blurred street images. Some of his pictures were “marvelous,” according to Alex Eliot, “but Diane’s crude portraits of Roman street urchins were even better,” perhaps because she was already developing a distinctive point of view.
Friends wondered if Allan was upset about Diane being the better photographer. “It’s rough on a guy when his wife is obviously more talented,” Rick Fredericks says. “But Allan not only accepted it, he even talked about it. He was proud of her visual gift as a brother or father might be.”
By himself he would struggle to perfect his photographic technique. “Allan was technically excellent,” says an advertising executive. “The problem was, he was often unable to apply his technique to any specific idea—which is where Diane came in. She always had an idea.”
Still, he would keep on studying light—the essential matter of photography—and the differences between the quality and quantity of light and the nature of light, and he would photograph a white screen over and over to test emulsions. He also used a special kind of lighting with a hanging reflector that he lowered or raised, and he would bounce strobe light off a corner of the reflector to achieve a soft and romantic effect. And he would stay for hours in the darkroom using up box after box of expensive Adox paper until he came up with the perfect print. And Diane would sit silently next to him as he printed an image over and over and over.
When he finished, he would go off to his room and practice the clarinet. He spent more and more time practicing the clarinet, and he never stopped dreaming of becoming an actor. But he knew Diane was as obsessed with the peculiar power of photography as he was with the art of make-believe, so he kept urging her to take pictures on her own: at least she could be doing what she wanted, even if he couldn’t.
And she couldn’t stop anyway—she always had a camera, usually a Leica, in her hand. Even when she was carrying on a long conversation with Pati Hill, she would have her eye pressed up against the viewfinder.
She snapped pictures all the time, although she had no particular focus or goal, just a vague, inarticulate feeling within her that somehow she wanted to photograph the private, secret experiences of people and of worlds hidden from public view. But she was too shy to ask strangers to pose, so instead she took pictures of friends.
She photographed a great many children: enraptured Puerto Rican kids watching a puppet show in Spanish Harlem; a tiny, seemingly deformed boy and girl laughing into her camera (this picture became a 1962 Evergreen cover). Then there were endless candids of her daughters, Doon and Amy, and portraits of Frederick and Isabel Eberstadt’s son, Nick, “but Nick disliked Diane so intensely the hostility radiated from the photograph.” (In contrast, the Eberstadts’ daughter, Nena, loved Diane—“went ape over her,” Eberstadt says. “After Diane photographed her, she jumped up and down and tore off all her clothes and went racing around our apartment.”)
Later Eberstadt arranged for Diane to go out to his father’s estate on Long Island’s North Shore to take a portrait of the distinguished financier presiding over a luncheon. Diane kept clicking away until the elder Eberstadt ordered her to stop. “You’ll give me indigestion!” Afterward he told his son, “Anyone who insists on taking pictures of people having a meal should be put out in a barn!”
Smith’s affirming picture of his two little children emerging from a dark wood into the sunlight capped the exhibit.
The first art director to conceive that a magazine should have a distinctive design philosophy; that visuals could express a point of view as clearly as editorial content. At Bazaar he revolutionized the magazine with bold new layout concepts integrating photographs and text with white space which gave excitement, fluidity, and aesthetic unity to the magazine pages.
John Szarkowski notes: “Her most frequent subject in fact was children—perhaps because their individuality is purer—less skillfully concealed—closer to the surface.”