“I am full of a sense of promise, like I often have, the feeling of always being at the beginning.” — Diane Arbus, July 1957
With more than 100 never-before-seen photographs, the Met Breuer’s Diane Arbus: In the Beginning explores the early work of a photographer considered by many to be one of the most influential and provocative artists of the 20th century. The exhibit focuses on the first seven years of the artist’s prolific career, from 1956 to 1962, the period in which she developed the idiosyncratic style for which she is now known. The majority of the photographs included in the exhibition are part of the museum’s vast Diane Arbus Archive, acquired in 2007 by gift and promised gift from the artist’s daughters, Doon Arbus and Amy Arbus. The works are intentionally presented neither in sequential nor thematic order, allowing the viewer to wander through the maze-like exhibit any way they choose. That is to say, with no beginning and no end.
Born to an affluent New York family in 1923, Diane Arbus was fascinated by photography even before she received her first professional camera in 1941 at the age of 18, a present from her husband, actor and photographer Allan Arbus. She photographed intermittently for the next 15 years while working with him as a stylist in their fashion photography company, which gained such notable clients as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Glamour. In 1956, however, she quit the commercial photography business, and began taking classes at the New School under photographer Lisette Model, the artist’s mentor and lifelong friend. That same year, Arbus numbered a roll of 35mm film #1, as if to claim to herself that this moment would be her definitive beginning.
In addition to Arbus’s photographs, also on view are works by her two biggest influencers, Lisette Model and portraitist August Sander, as well as some of Arbus’s contemporaries. The exhibit also presents photographs from the artist’s only portfolio, A box of ten photographs. Among these images are some of Arbus’s most iconic works, such as Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967; Jewish Giant, taken at Home with His Parents in the Bronx, New York, 1970; and A Young Man in Curlers at Home on West 20th Street, N.Y.C. 1966. Like so many artists, Arbus only achieved real fame after her death in 1971 at the age of 48 when she took her own life. She did exhibit in major venues during her lifetime, but even then, her work was often polarizing. Young Man in Curlers was notably spat on during a group exhibition at MoMA in 1967. A print of this work sold at auction in 2004 for $198,400.
In her work Arbus explores the fine line between fact and fiction, the candid and the posed, revealing something fundamental to human nature. We behave differently when we are being observed—we tend to perform for one another. In fact, many of Arbus’s subjects were performers, from “female impersonators” to circus acts and cartoon characters who straddle that oh-so familiar line between real and imaginary.
While reading the gallery copy of the exhibition catalogue, I happened to sit down next to Patricia Bosworth, journalist and author of a 1984 biography on Arbus. Mrs. Bosworth was having a lively conversation with her husband about the show. They lamented over a lack of “honesty” in the show, as well as the absence of her biography and Arthur Lubow’s recent biography in the museum’s pop-up bookstore, which only sells books published by Phaidon. As for the lack of “honesty,” I believe Mrs. Bosworth was referring to the fact that the museum glossed over some of the most interesting and controversial aspects of the artist’s life, from her open marriage and active libido to her lifelong struggle with clinical depression, details which both Lubow and Bosworth include in their biographies. It is no coincidence that Arbus quit commercial photography during the rise of counterculture in the 1950s and 60s–she documented this culture as much as she was a part of it.
Arbus once said “Something is ironic in the world and it has to do with the fact that what you intend never comes out like you intend it.” A photograph only represents a split second in time, but in these small moments Arbus was able to capture the humanity in her subjects in a way that many others cannot. You stand in front of them and they return your gaze, asking you to consider the reality of their lives. Whatever conclusions you may draw about these subjects or the intentions of the photographer, it does not take away from one simple truth. At least you know they exist.
Diane Arbus: In the Beginning is on view at the Met Breuer through November 27, 2016.