In the 35 years since her death, Diane Arbus’ most famous photographs—the twin girls in identical outfits, the wild-eyed boy clutching a toy hand-grenade, the Jewish giant slouching in his parents’ Bronx living room—have become icons, indelibly etched in the modern imagination. And just as indelible is the popular myth of Arbus as an artist haunted by inner demons—a neurotic voyeur, a lover of freaks. Her tragic mystique is rooted not only in her unexplained suicide at age 48 but also in rumors of her sexual adventurousness, in her oracular reflections on art and life (“A photograph is a secret about a secret,” she wrote. “The more it tells you, the less you know”), and not least, in the audacious exoticism of her subject matter. When the Museum of Modern Art mounted the first Arbus retrospective in 1972, a year after her death, her startling images of dwarfs, transvestites, and nudists inspired criticism of the most visceral kind: It’s said that the MoMA staff had to wipe the spit off the photographs’ protective glass frames at the end of each day. The show, which traveled for three years after its New York debut, was a succès de scandale that cemented Arbus’ reputation as the Dark Lady of American photography.
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