Fine and Performing Arts, Hixson-Lied College of


Date of this Version



Short, Grace. 2018 "Representations of Mainstream and Marginalized Subjects in the Work of Diane Arbus." Master's Thesis, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


A THESIS Presented to the Faculty of The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements For the Degree of Master of Arts, Major: Art History, Under the Supervision of Professor Christin Mamiya. Lincoln, Nebraska: May 2018

Copyright (c) 2018 Grace Short


This thesis considers the photographs of the twentieth-century photographer, Diane Arbus. In America during the 1950s and 60s, Arbus photographed both marginalized and mainstream subjects including dwarfs, giants, transvestites, nudists, debutantes, socialites, and celebrities. At one point in her career, she expressed an interest in family portraiture and, indeed, a number of her images depict families.

Scholars who have written about Arbus, such as Susan Sontag, Carol Armstrong, Anthony W. Lee, and John Pultz, have formulated theories about Arbus’s motivations, although their findings focus on individual features of her work. Sontag argued that Arbus exploited her unorthodox sitters whereas Armstrong and Phillips believed that Arbus was concerned with the individuality of each person that she photographed. Pultz and Lee considered her motivations for taking pictures of families. This thesis seeks to determine if there is a direct relationship between families, the marginalized, and the mainstream by comprehensively examining her work.

I argue that Arbus was interested in the factors which either made her subjects members of the mainstream or marginalized them and that her photographs juxtapose both sides of American society in the 1950s and 60s. She belonged to a family who publicly misrepresented themselves in order to conform to dominant standards, which at the time were being defined by media representations of the nuclear, “normal” family. Arbus recognized the artifice associated with her family’s public presentation and broadly equated them with individuals and families in the mainstream. Additionally, she led a secretive, unconventional private life and identified more with the “freaks” in her photographs than with her middle and upper-class subjects because their experiences more closely paralleled her own. Arbus envied people in the margins who did not conform to American standards and were thus not concerned with manipulating their public image. These attitudes influenced her photographic depictions. I believe this thesis will offer a novel and thorough interpretation of the photographer’s work and contribute to the breadth of existing scholarship on Arbus.

Advisor: Christin Mamiya