Diane Arbus always had a way with people. As a child she was so precocious, curious, and observant that she intimidated her own mother. As a teenager, she excelled in school with a mind so fine that an art teacher called her “an original.” As a young woman, she knew how to both seduce and submit to men in order to get what she wanted: attention, affection. Many who met her found her utterly fascinating, and she in turn was fascinated by the lives of others. “I love secrets, and I can find out anything,” she once said. And in many ways, she did.
Arbus was a titan of twentieth-century American photography, albeit an understated one, who in her too-brief career helped to crack open the world for closer inspection. (She died by her own hand in 1971 at the age of 48.) Like her predecessors and peers — Lisette Model, Berenice Abbott, Gary Winogrand, and Lee Friedlander, to name a few — she preferred the streets to the studio, documenting the world as it passed before her. Unlike some of them, she wasn’t interested in capturing her subjects anonymously, or on the sly. She wanted to connect with them, to know them, and to produce images possessed of something essential, something real about them. “diane arbus: in the beginning” is an extraordinary exhibition of the artist’s earliest photographs, taken as she was just going out into the world to come into her own.
The show spans seven years of work, from 1956, the year Arbus began taking photographs in earnest, to 1962, the year she moved from using a 35mm camera to a 2.25-inch Rolleiflex, which became her signature format. On view are almost one hundred photographs, two-thirds of which have never before been published — and all of which were printed by Arbus herself. This is not an incidental virtue; this is proof of the integrity propelling this exhibition, rare in an era burdened by the moral complications of posthumous printing. In 2007, Arbus’s daughters, Amy and Doon, placed their mother’s archives with the Met. Led by Jeff L. Rosenheim, Curator in Charge of the Department of Photographs, the curatorial team clearly took their custodianship very seriously, handling her work and legacy with impeccable thought and care. Even the exhibition’s daring and decidedly eccentric installation makes its point beautifully. Each photo is hung on its own narrow, column-like wall. These walls are placed in staggered lines throughout the space, allowing audiences to perambulate around the room like Arbus once did throughout New York. One approaches each image as though it were its own encounter — singular, incomparable, though of a shared time and place.
Nineteen fifty-six was a pivotal year for Arbus. Although she and her husband, Allan, had achieved a certain level of success as fashion photographers, the business never suited her. Frivolous fantasies featuring fancy dresses were a stress and a bore, and for some time she’d felt herself pulled in another direction. She was far more compelled by the real world, in part because her privileged upbringing had kept her so far from it. “One of the things I felt I suffered from as a kid was that I never felt adversity,” she explained to Studs Terkel in a 1968 interview recorded in Arthur Lubow’s recent biography, Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer. “I was confirmed in the sense of unreality which I only could feel as unreality.” After dissolving her working relationship with Allan, she begged a spot in a photography class taught by Lisette Model, whom Arbus would always credit for giving her the confidence to capture what she alone saw.
Her newfound autonomy allowed her to wander, to follow whatever caught her eye, and to pay better, closer attention. She met her subjects by chance, and by choice. By 1958 she was making lists in her notebooks of who and what she might want to photograph: “weird women,” “dressing rm,” “morgue.” She took her camera with her everywhere: to 42nd Street, to Hubert’s Museum (which presented sideshow acts), to drag shows, to Coney Island, to the Lower East Side. Some of the exhibition’s most intriguing images are those Arbus took inside of movie theaters, which double as studies in light and shadow. At times, she pointed her camera at the audience illuminated by the projector’s beam (42nd Street movie theater audience, N.Y.C., Audience with projection booth, both 1958). At other times she photographed the screen, a document of sorts of the real-life presence of fiction (Kiss from “Baby Doll,” N.Y.C., 1956; Clouds on a screen at a drive-in movie N.J., 1961).
Arbus loved the grain of the photograph. In fact, Model remembered that the first works she brought to class were “nothing but grain.” Some of her early images are so soft as to be nearly-not-there, as though the artist wasn’t capturing her subjects so much as excavating them from the world, releasing them from its murk. One of the most exquisite works in the exhibition is Windblown headline on a dark pavement, N.Y.C. (1956). Although nothing more than a newspaper on a sidewalk — its headline blurred, its pages fluttering in the breeze — this garbage, this discarded bit of “old news” is presented as an apparition just materializing from the heavy shadows surrounding it.
The artist always titled her photographs succinctly, without pretense or poetry: Blonde receptionist behind a picture window; Couple arguing; Corpse with receding hairline and a toe tag; Stripper with bare breasts sitting in her dressing room. All is labeled as though she were cataloging specimens for study. Young man with paper bag at night, Coney Island, N.Y. (1957), for instance, gives nothing away regarding the subject’s proud pose, his wide, goofy grin, or the bright boardwalk lights beaming behind him. Perhaps she knew that words couldn’t compete with images — one of the reasons why Arbus’s photographs will always leave us speechless.
‘diane arbus: in the beginning’
The Met Breuer
945 Madison Avenue
Through November 27