Diane Arbus in the Adirondacks

by Brett Essler | April 2017

When this ground-breaking photographer summered on Lake Champlain

Known for unflinching
photographs of communities on the margins—from carnival freaks to nudist colonies—Diane Arbus changed the perception of what photography could be.

With each passing year since Arbus’s 1971 suicide, her influence and status have grown in ways unimaginable to her during her lifetime. Her most famous photographs—the New Jersey identical twins in matching dresses whose unsettling gaze into the lens of Arbus’s Rolleiflex camera is said to have inspired a scene in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining; the “Jewish giant” who looms over his parents in the family’s Bronx apartment, illuminated by Arbus’s flash—are now so much part of the fabric of fine art it is hardly controversial to suggest, as a recent New York magazine headline did, that Arbus was the “most radical photographer of the 20th century.”

But in August 1950, Arbus was not yet an art-world celebrity. That summer, she and her husband, Allan, were seeking escape, not only from New York City’s oppressive summer heat, but from the stifling grind of the fashion photography business they ran from a rented midtown studio space.

Both considered themselves artists: Allan longed to act or play clarinet professionally, and Diane’s role in the business as art director greatly underutilized her raw talent with the camera. They were unfulfilled by the commercial, and often fickle, world of fashion.

In past summers, the Arbuses had alighted on Martha’s Vineyard, but the fallout from a romantic entanglement had made that location untenable. The previous summer, Diane had an affair with Alex Eliot, whom she had known since the age of 15 (she had met Allan two years earlier, and married him when she was just 18). They had made love on the beach, steps away from the house where their spouses had just retired, fraying her own marriage and shattering Eliot’s with his wife, Anne.

With the Vineyard ruined by bad memories, the Arbuses instead made their way upstate to Westport, New York, on the shores of Lake Champlain. Why Diane and Allan chose Westport is not entirely clear, though the couple’s deep admiration for the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who summered in Lake George (sometimes with wife Georgia O’Keeffe), may have influenced the choice. The Arbuses had visited the legendary photographer in 1941 at his An American Place gallery in New York City and would visit Stieglitz occasionally, seeking feedback on their work. (In a 1945 letter to Stieglitz announcing the birth of their daughter, Doon, Diane wrote, “By this, you must know who I am, though my name means nothing to you.”)

Westport had became a fashionable tourist destination in the mid-19th century. As industry such as milling and commercial agriculture declined, farmers and homeowners seized the opportunity by renting out cottages and rooms to summer guests fleeing the heat and humidity of city life. The Delaware & Hudson Railroad ferried passengers from New York City, Albany and Montreal, and grand hotels like the Westport Inn offered breathtaking views of Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains.

The Westport the Arbuses would have found in 1950 was still a bustling summer retreat, though  its status as a resort town whose social scene was chronicled in The New York Times had faded, a victim of the array of new travel options provided by automobiles and airlines.

Diane, Allan and Doon were joined in Westport by a coterie of colorful friends from the New York City fashion and publishing worlds: Eliot, who remained close to Diane and Allan despite their complicated love triangle, arrived with a new girlfriend, Jane Winslow Knapp; Diane’s close friend Nancy Christopherson, who brought her daughter, Poni, and her future husband, legendary art dealer Richard Bellamy; and Tina Fredericks, an art director at Vogue who often hired the Arbuses, and her husband, Rick.

In Patricia Bosworth’s 1984 Diane Arbus: A Biography, Rick Fredericks re-called “a lot of traveling from island to island we paddled around on ca-noes—slept in sleeping bags on bunches of rocks. My back was killing me.”

Bosworth also shares Alex Eliot’s remembrance of “somebody losing their car keys and Jane diving into the lake over and over again in an unsuccessful effort to retrieve them.”

Despite these diversions, the cloud of Diane and Alex’s romantic tension hung over the proceedings. Diane tried hard to ingratiate herself with Jane, who refused “to be slotted as the fourth leg of the table” in the relationship with the Arbuses and Eliot.

Arbus found Alex “far more desirable now that he was unattainable,” she told Christopherson at the time. Christopherson replied: “This too shall pass.” (In Bosworth’s book, Christopherson is referred to pseudonymously as “Cheech McKensie.”)

None of the published accounts of the Arbuses’ vacation indicated a specific location, citing only a cottage “on Lake Champlain” in the Adirondacks. But a recent email exchange with Arthur Lubow, author of Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer, revealed that the Arbuses and their guests rented from “the Dyke family.”

According to documents from the Adirondack Museum, in Blue Mountain Lake, and the Town of Westport, the most likely location of the Arbuses’ stay is Windward Inn and Cottages. Wilfred and Henrietta Dyke bought Windward in 1949, opening the grand main house as an inn and “converting the stables and boathouse to guest cottages.” The property on Main Street, built by Colonel D. D. Johnson and his wife in 1906, offered “breathtaking views of Westport Bay.”

The original inn was razed in 1969, but the lakeside cottages remain a part of the property, known today as Westport Vacation Land.

The Arbuses’ Westport vacation is, in both Lubow’s and Bosworth’s biographies, a mere footnote in a short but important career. The Diane Arbus of 1950 is still, artistically speaking, un-formed. She would not leave Allan—the marriage and the business—to begin her own groundbreaking photography career until the late 1950s. Her Guggenheim Fellowship and inclusion in a Museum of Modern Art photography exhibition were more than a decade away.

If Diane was actively taking photos in Westport that August there is little evidence to illustrate her aesthetic at that time. Diane Arbus’s archives, held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, are not open to researchers and a museum representative could not offer details on what, if any, summer 1950 photographs lie within the collection. Few pre-1956 Arbus photographs have been published.

One Diane Arbus photo shot during the Westport trip has been published, most recently in Judith Stein’s Eye of the Sixties: Richard Bellamy and the Transformation of Modern Art. “Diane took photos during the visit,” Stein writes. “Catching Dick at the breakfast table, tousled hair, pensive, a knee hugged to his chest, a cigarette idling in his fingers.”

Other photo documentation from the trip exists, though the pictures are by Allan, who at that time was the more skilled and accomplished photographer. A contact strip first published in 2003’s Diane Arbus Revelations shows four scenes from the Lake Champlain trip—two of Diane, in a striped T-shirt with a camera around her neck, and one of Christopherson, as well as individual shots of Doon and of Christopherson’s daugher, Poni, both age five at the time. Doon points skyward, posed in front of an “Amusement” tent, perhaps a nod to the circuses and carnivals Diane would become notorious for documenting.

While the Westport vacation may not hold a significant place in Diane Arbus’s oeuvre, it was in some ways pivotal to her formation as a photographer. It cemented her and Allan’s desire to leave New York City’s fashion business—in the spring of 1951 they would depart for a year-long European trip. By 1956, Diane was studying under Lisette Model in Greenwich Village and rapidly developing a visual style that would elevate the art form of photography. The couple would separate in 1959, though they remained attached both financially and emotionally even as Allan pursued a career in acting in Hollywood (most famously as the psychiatrist Sidney Freedman on the television series M*A*S*H). Diane Arbus took her own life in 1971.

All of the Arbuses’ known visitors to the Windward cottages in August 1950 have passed (aside from Doon, now 71), taking with them memories—physical or otherwise—from this Adirondack vacation.

In her book on Bellamy, Stein reports that Nancy Christopherson—living alone on the Upper West Side—fell on the ice and broke her hip in 2003. Unable to provide information about family or friends (Poni had died in 1986), Christopherson became a ward of the state and was placed in a nursing home. Her landlord discarded her belongings, including several Arbus prints given to her by the photographer.

One wonders what scenes those prints may have depicted—maybe the famous “Jewish giant” or the “Mexican midget,” but perhaps something more personal: a snapshot of simpler times on Lake Champlain. 

Brett Essler is a New York City–based writer whose work has appeared in Modern Farmer, AlterNet and Narratively.

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