SF MOMA’s remarkable new exhibit of early works by the brilliant photographer, Diane Arbus (1923-1971) contains about taken by the artist in New York City between 1956 and 1962. Imaginatively installed in six galleries on the third floor of SFMOMA, the show uses only a portion of the museum’s 12,000 square feet of space that is dedicated to photography.
To call the photographs “early works” is actually a bit of a misnomer, since these photographs comprise about one-half of Arbus’s body of work. Most of the photographs on exhibit are gifts from Arbus’s two daughters to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they were displayed publicly for the first time last summer. “diane arbus: in the beginning” will not be exhibited at any other United States venue after its stay in San Francisco.
Diane Arbus (neé Nemerov) married Allan Arbus when she was 18 years old, and sometimes took photographs when she worked as an art director/stylist with her husband in their successful fashion photography business. In 1956, Arbus numbered a roll of 35mm film, “#1” as though she were marking the beginning of her career as a serious photographer.
For the next seven years, she traveled through New York City taking photos with her 35 mm camera. In 1962, Arbus began working with the 2¼ inch square format Rolleiflex camera that she used for the rest of her life. Included in the exhibit are six square-format photographs from 1962, including the disquieting “Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962,” the photograph that signals Arbus’s abandonment of the 35mm camera. In 1963, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which was renewed in 1966. For the rest of her career, Arbus worked on assignment and taught photography in New York City.
Diane Arbus’s small photographic portraits may seem to some an acquired taste. They are not designed to be pretty. Rather, they are typically full face-on startling yet intimate portraits of New Yorkers of all stripes. Although Arbus is known for her pictures of outsiders, such as female impersonators, midgets and giants, this exhibit shows the full scope of Arbus’s breadth with portrayals of various personalities including the well-heeled somber “Woman with white gloves and a pocket book N.Y.C. 1956,” and the philosophical “Taxicab driver at the wheel with two passengers 1956 N.Y.C.”
Unlike her contemporaries, who thought that photographers should secretly record who and what they observed, Arbus sought to discover the emotion that stems from personal interaction with her subjects. Whereas Helen Levitt used a right-angle viewfinder so no one could see what she was doing, and Walker Evans used the folds of his coat to hide his camera, Arbus often met and engaged her subjects who became an integral part of the photographic experience. They invited her into their homes and she gave them copies of their portraits. The difference between the two documentary styles is highlighted by a small display of photographs by Arbus’s contemporaries, including Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, and Lisette Model, with whom Arbus studied.
Diane Arbus is often described as a genius and the premier female photographer of the 20th century, yet a few critics decry her work as ugly, unremarkable and compassionless. Both statements have some truth. Arbus captured the unremarkable of New York, yet she brought out their charisma and character. Although many of her photographs resemble quick snapshots, most are not. She labored to develop intimate portraits that crystalize and encapsulate her subjects in their time and place —an ability accomplished by few artists in any media.
This exhibit adds depth and breadth to our understanding of her formidable talent.
By Emily S. Mendel
©Emily S. Mendel 2017 All Rights Reserved.