Exhibitions: "Diane Arbus: In The Beginning"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday July 12, 2016

Starting today, we can see Diane Arbus in a new way.

Opening at the Met Breuer in New York is the exhibition “Diane Arbus: In The Beginning,” which features more than 100 photographs from Arbus’s early work, many never seen before. The images are drawn from the Diane Arbus Archive, acquired by the Metropolitan Museum in 2007 from the artist’s daughters, Doon and Amy Arbus. Seen now, they provide “the first real glimpse of one of the greatest artists of the 20th century in chrysalis,” notes Jeff L. Rosenheim, Curator in Charge of the Department of Photographs at Met Breuer.

The exhibition arrives after the publication this year of Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer, an unauthorized biography by Arthur Lubow that explores the connections between Arbus’s work and her own life, which ended in suicide in 1971, when she was 48.

The book and the exhibition also shed light on how Arbus changed photography during her brief career, making disquieting images that looked at what Charlotte Jensen of the AnOther blog  calls “society’s rejected, dejected and debilitated.”

“For some critics, the way Arbus showed society’s most marginalized was an empathetic impulse – as the photographer herself said, ‘the camera is cruel, so I try to be as good as I can to make things even,’” notes Jensen. “Yet for others – such as Susan Sontag, who wrote extensively on Arbus after her death in her 1977 book of essays On Photography – her photographs seem to want to numb our reactions to the horror of being human, and lead to an alienation when looking.”

Arbus’s work, Jensen notes, raises difficult questions: “Can photographs change our perception of the world, or help us to accept what we fear?” she writes. “This questioning is at the core of Arbus’s powerful oeuvre, part of an ongoing personal struggle with her own position, as an American woman, as a photographer, and as a spectator.”

Above: Lady on a bus, N.Y.C. 1957© The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

“There’s an authenticity to Arbus’ pictures and her style – the straightforward, documentary style — but there’s also this very deep feeling that visitors to her shows have, a profound experience,” Rosenheim tells Jensen in an interview. “When you see a Diane Arbus picture, in the flesh or even in reproduction, you’re seeing a distinctive expression, an artistic expression of uncommon truthfulness and veracity.”

Above: Little man biting woman's breast, N.Y.C., 1958, Diane Arbus/The Estate of Diane Arbus LLC

“If you think of what we know of Arbus, it’s really Chapter 2,” the curator noted at the New York Times. “What we’re doing is Chapter 1. And the two are much more connected than you could ever imagine. The opportunity is to look at the poetics of a great artist at the beginning of her career, and if we compare that to Walker Evans, for example, or for that matter Robert Frank or Helen Levitt or Lee Friedlander or Garry Winogrand, when you look at their beginnings, they are very different from their middles and their ends. And Arbus’s work is really just one beautiful thing.”

Above: Jack Dracula at a bar, New London, Conn. 1961
© The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

In Arbus’s early images, Rosenheim notes, “you can see for yourself that she is already isolating individuals, pedestrians on Fifth Avenue. She is approaching people, and in almost every instance, it’s one image and the subject is addressing the camera. Arbus did not want to do what almost every one of her peers was doing, which she was highly aware of — she was well versed in the history of the medium; she was taking classes from Lisette Model and she had studied with Berenice Abbott and Alexey Brodovitch. What she took away from that training was this feeling that she could find her subject and they could find her in equal measure. She allowed herself to be vulnerable enough.”

Above: Man in hat, trunks, socks and shoes, Coney Island, N.Y. 1960The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Writing in the New York Times  in May, Lubow, author of the new Arbus biography, noted that in 1956 Arbus “tearfully dissolved the decade-long fashion-photography enterprise that she had been conducting successfully but stressfully with her husband, Allan.”

“Her misery was longstanding,” Lubow wrote. “Fashion photography is built on artifice. Diane needed, temperamentally and philosophically, to poke through pretensions and masks to expose the hidden truth.”

Above: The Backwards Man in his hotel room, N.Y.C. 1961© The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Looking at Arbus’s work — for instance, her 1962 photograph of an office receptionist — forces us to confront our own identity, noted Rosenheim in the Times.

“And that’s a really beautiful switch, that switcheroo,” he says. “We’re looking at somebody else but we’re mindful of our voyeurism, and we’re mindful of how we ourselves are presenting. ‘How am I different? How did I become the person I am?’ That’s one of the qualifying elements of an Arbus photograph: that you feel something about you, often something that might not be comfortable.”

Above: Blonde receptionist behind a picture window, N.Y.C., 1962, Diane Arbus/The Estate of Diane Arbus LLC

At top: Taxicab driver at the wheel with two passengers, N.Y.C. 1956© The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved


  1. commented on: July 12, 2016 at 7 p.m.
    I think labeling Diane Arbus as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century might be pushing it a wee bit. Certainly influential, certainly she went to the dark places Robert Frank only suggested in the Americans. But her mania and depression took over. That she had a well-tempered camera to bear witness, before the maturation of psychotherapy may have been unprecedented; and unfortunate. That her work gave permission to all students of the craft to mimic and explore is undeniable, but this was the advent of mass media. In the fifties. Her influence all over the work of myriad photographers from Joel-Peter Witkin all the way to Cindy Sherman but it is still a question if the work is art or convenient opportunism for social commentary. Had Diane not cut her nascent talent short and had the grace of time, the greatness was waiting. ~TEU

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