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Gerda Taro and Diane Arbus: Photographic Trailblazers

International Center of Photography / Getty Images

They broke boundaries for women in photography and died on the same day, July 26.

Two of history's greatest female photographers died on the same day, 34 years apart – Gerda Taro on July 26, 1937, and Diane Arbus on July 26, 1971. We’re pausing to remember these two exceptional photographers, both of whom blazed new paths for women in photography, contributed unique and unusual bodies of work, and died much too young.

Gerda Taro was a war photographer, considered the first woman to cover the front lines of a war. She chronicled the Spanish Civil War, spotlighting small and intimate moments that humanized the conflict: a solitary soldier playing bugle against a backdrop of sky; women training for a militia, some confident, some unsure; a young boy standing near a trench, looking ready to join the fight. Perhaps most famous is her silhouette of a woman with a pistol, down on one knee and concentrating furiously on her shot… yet wearing impeccable high heels. Like many of Taro's wartime images, it's an incredibly memorable shot.

The war that made Taro's career also took her life. She was just 26 years old when she was struck and killed by a tank. Within a few years after her death, the celebrated photographer had sunk into obscurity, her negatives lost and few remembering her work. Found decades later, her photos have now been exhibited, demonstrating the depth she achieved in a short career. 

Diane Arbus took photographs no less gritty than Taro's, but she sought scenes of ordinary daily life rather than the extraordinary situations of war. Her portraits were controversial, often disliked by her subjects for the flaws they exposed. No less controversial were her photos of "freaks," in which she highlighted deformities by capturing unusual people in ordinary settings. A giant at home alongside his much-shorter parents; three midgets relaxing in a living room – the mundane backdrops make the viewer acutely aware of what isn't mundane.

Like Gerda Taro, Diane Arbus broke boundaries, photographing subjects no woman before her had considered. And again like Taro, Arbus can be said to have lost her life to her art. With creative genius often comes mental illness, and Arbus died by suicide at age 48.