The “Evil” Photographs of Diane Arbus: Know Before You Bid

James Ardis
Published on

Christie’s Brings to Auction a Diane Arbus Photograph in Timed Event

“I think all families are creepy in a way,” photographer Diane Arbus wrote to her friend and editor Peter Crookston in 1968. At the time, Arbus was planning a photo set featuring families she’d found particularly interesting. She described one of the families to Crookston in the same letter, “[The wife] is about 35 with terribly blonde hair and enormously eyelashed and booted and probably married to a dress manufacturer or restaurateur.”

Family on their lawn one Sunday in Westchester, N.Y., 1968 by Diane Arbus. Photo by Christie’s.
Family on their lawn one Sunday in Westchester, N.Y., 1968 by Diane Arbus. Photo by Christie’s.

Arbus’s photograph of the family, Family on their lawn one Sunday in Westchester, N.Y., 1968, would be featured in an issue of The London Sunday Times Magazine later that year. The picture shows the “enormously eyelashed” woman, along with her husband and son. The wife sunbathes, anticipating the photograph. Meanwhile, the husband uses his left hand to block out either the sun or photo or perhaps both, and the son turns his back on the camera to focus on the pool.

A print of this family photo is among the highlighted lots in the upcoming Photographs online auction, presented by Christie’s. The print is signed, titled, and inscribed by the artist. The lot also comes with a certificate of authenticity from the photographer’s estate. Christie’s estimate for the piece is between USD 200,000 and $300,000.

Beyond the 1968 issue of The London Sunday Times Magazine, the photograph was also used in posthumous reflections on the life and work of Diane Arbus. This includes the 2003 book Diane Arbus: Revelations by the photographer’s daughter, Doon Arbus, and the 1984 collection Diane Arbus: Magazine Work.

In her lifetime, Arbus photographed unconventional subjects, from circus performers to dwarfs to drag queens. Arbus herself was far less diplomatic regarding her own aesthetic, telling mentor Lisette Model that she intended to “photograph what is evil.” Arbus’s daughter would later clarify that her mother meant to say she chose subjects society believed were “too dangerous, too frightening, or too ugly.”

Family on their lawn was produced several years after Arbus transitioned to working with a 2 1/4 format camera. Her belief was that this gave her a clearer and more faithful representation of the subject. It allowed her, she said, “to see the difference between flesh and material.”

Emerging Man by Gordon Parks. Photo by Christie’s.
Emerging Man by Gordon Parks. Photo by Christie’s.

Other featured photographs in this event include Laura Gilpin’s Storm over La Bajada Hill, New Mexico, 1946, and Emerging Man (from Invisible Man) by Gordon Parks. Interested bidders can register to bid on Christie’s website. The timed event is active now and will continue until June 3rd.