Paying Homage to a Photography Legend: Diane Arbus at the Met Breuer

Sandra Bertrand


When most people view a photograph, they form a quick impression of the subject and move on, the image forgotten or filed away for a rainy day’s recall.  When photographer Diane Arbus (1923-1972) looked at her subject and clicked, it was nothing less than self-revelation.  In the act of seeing and being seen, she discovered herself. 


The Met Breuer (the former home of The Whitney Museum of American Art) with Diane Arbus: In the Beginning has created a remarkable homage to this brilliant and unsettling artist. By exploring her never-before-seen early work from the first seven years of her career (1956-1962), her singular idiosyncratic style emerges loud and clear.  Humanity in all its guises—the clowns, the transvestites, the nudists, the ordinary man or woman made extraordinary by her lens—they’re all here.   No one is spared. 


A decade after her untimely death by suicide in 1971 at the age of 48, a trove of never-before-seen images were unearthed, stored in a basement darkroom on Charles Street in the West Village. And two-thirds of those images on display have been generously produced by her daughters, Doon and Amy Arbus for this exhibit.   What a viewing experience it is. A series of stately columns greet the eye, with a single photograph placed on the front and back side of each.  One can traverse the exhibit by winding around each horizontal row or better still, as the column rows are asymmetrical, taking a diagonal route as one would winding down an unknown street in a strange city.  You’re caught in the labyrinth of discovery and what better way to experience the hallucinatory world of Arbus. 



Aesthetics for the young Diane Nemerov was hardly the point.  She may have cut her teeth as a fashion art director with her childhood sweetheart and spouse Allen Arbus, but the true mystery and possibilities inherent in a 35mm camera lay dormant, just waiting to be unlocked.  In Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph published posthumously in 1972, John Swarkowski, Director of MOMA’s Department of Photography, delineated her approach to the medium: “She loved photography for the miracle it performed everyday by accident, and respected it for the precise, intentional tool that it could be, given talent, intelligence, dedication and discipline.”  It’s worth noting that once her singular vision was recognized—she was the first American photographer to have her work displayed in the Venice Biennale—she became a kind of rock star in that burgeoning new art world of the caught image.  Early mentors like Berenice Abbott, Lisette Model and even Weegee, the New York crime photographer who found inspiration in the grisly and garish nightlife of the Big Apple, appealed to her inner psyche.  


Arbus herself, quoted in the abovementioned monograph, was even more humble in her admissions:  “You don’t put into a photograph what’s going to come out.  Or, vice versa, what comes out is not what you put in.”  After a few trips down the eponymous rabbit hole with eyes wide open, she could admit: 

“It’s very subtle and a little embarrassing to me, but I really believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them.”


Wandering through the maze of images, one is struck by the hypnotic pull her subjects arouse.  How did she get under the skin of the wealthy Fifth Avenue matron, or the boy clutching a toy grenade, his face contorted into a mask of rage, or the bare-breasted stripper caught resting in a shabby dressing room somewhere in Atlantic City?  How did she manage to get inside a Russian midget’s kitchen, or the living room of a retired couple one morning on the grounds of a nudist camp?  What was it about the pixie-haired, gamin-like woman with a camera that elicited such trust? 



For one thing, Arbus had what used to be called pluck.  She, her younger sister Renee who became a sculptor and her older brother Howard who rose to the position of United States Poet Laureate (and with whom she shared an incestuous relationship up to two weeks before her death), had certain advantages growing up.  Their Jewish parents owned Russek’s, a prosperous Fifth Avenue Department store.  According to an early art teacher in Arthur Lubow’s recently published biography, Portrait of a Photographer, “It was them against the world.”  Perhaps one explanation for Arbus’s success with her subjects lay in her own telling words from the book: “When you face things that scare you and you survive, you’ve conquered your anxiety, which is worse than the danger could ever be.”


There’s little question that Arbus sought answers in the underbelly world after dark.  Carnivals and movie houses were a hotbed of inspiration.  The Headless Woman (1961), The Human Pincushion (1961), the Clown in a Fedora (1957) appearing in white face as he emerges from the inky black shadows are just a few from the sideshow stables.  The Screaming Woman with Blood on Her Hands (1961) is a good example of the cinematic images that held her interest, as is Bela Lugosi as Dracula on Television (1958).  Obviously, it might be easy to brush such images off for their shock value, but taken within the context of her total output, she seems to be inviting us to go deeper.  As she remarks in the exhibit’s wall notes, “It’s what I’ve never seen before that I recognize.”


A surprising poignancy emerges in the photographs where there are no living subjects.  Empty Snack Bar (1957) stirs the imagination to know who sat in the departed chairs only moments before.  A massive Christmas tree with its fake shingles seems to hover forlornly in the corner of a room too small to house it.  That image in the main exhibit and nine other iconic photographs on display in a side room, are mature examples of the work that Arbus produced from 1962 onwards, with a 2-1/4” square format Rolleiflex camera.


If a mastery of subject matter was to be married to a sophisticated presentation, it is here.  The images chosen from 1962 to 1970 were part of a boxed set, numbered and signed by the photographer, in an edition of 50.  The flier notes that the box was for sale from Arbus for one thousand dollars.  (During her lifetime, only four were sold:  Photographer Richard Avedon who purchased one for himself and one for director Mike Nichols; one went to Bea Feitler, an art director at Harper’s Bazaar and now in the Smithsonian collection; and artist Jasper Johns.)



To see these images in their square 16 x 20 format, many as familiar to us now as a favorite family portrait, is a riveting and memorable experience.  A family on their lawn one Sunday in Westchester, NY gives us a perfect picture of bored affluence in the form of a ‘60s couple in swimwear, supine in twin lawn chairs.  A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx is heartbreaking, the son looming over his dwarfed parents, head bent to fit within the low-ceilinged living room.  Identical Twins, Roselle, NY presents us with two young girls with matching headbands and white-collared shifts, forcing us to look for differences.  Shoulder to shoulder, they confront us like a pair of spooky children straight out of a Stephen King novel. 


There are others in the room, waiting to be encountered if one dares.  Diane Arbus dared and the cost of looking into the abyss can sometimes be too great.  As she remarked in the Monograph, “I am full of a sense of promise, like I often have, the feeling of always being at the beginning.”  She left us too soon, but maybe her ending can be for the many still to discover her, a beginning.


Diane Arbus: In the Beginning is on view at The Met Breuer, 945 Madison Avenue, New York, NY through November 27, 2016.


Author Bio:


Sandra Bertrand is Highbrow Magazine’s chief art critic.


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