This is a rarity: a bad show you shouldn’t miss. It’s based on the understandable premise that Diane Arbus is important and intriguing enough to rivet our attention with a slew of forgotten contact sheets and a haphazard collection of conveniently available prints. Unfortunately, nearly a third of the material here—virtually the entire outcome of a 1969 family portrait commission—is so desperately routine that pulling even two good pictures from it is a real stretch. Those pictures, both portraits of the family’s 11-year-old daughter, have the uncanny, unsettling intensity that Arbus trademarked, but they’re hardly worth building an exhibition around. However slight, they provide an excuse to gather some of the photographer’s lesser-known portraits, many of them originally made on assignment for Esquire. Here, too, the quality is seriously uneven, but the best ones (Blaze Starr, Norman Mailer, Jayne Mansfield, Mae West, Brenda Frazier, and some rich gargoyle with a beehive) are funny, tender, uncompromising, and among the most memorable images in town right now.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 13, 2004