Diane Arbus (American, 1923–1971) found most of her subjects in New York, the city in which she was born, and a place that she explored as both a known territory and a foreign land, during the 1950s and 1960s. Her "contemporary anthropology"—portraits of couples, children, carnival performers, nudists, middle-class families, transvestites, people on the street, zealots, eccentrics, and celebrities—stands as an allegory of postwar America and an exploration of the relationship between appearance and identity, illusion and belief, theater and reality.
For Arbus, photography was a medium that tangled with the facts. Many of her subjects face the camera implicitly aware of their collaboration in the portrait-making process. In her photographs, the self-conscious encounter between photographer and subject becomes a central drama of the picture.
This exhibition features approximately 180 of the artist's most significant photographs. Not since 1972, when The Museum of Modern Art honored the artist following her death, has there been as rich an opportunity to experience the scope of Arbus's achievements.
Included in the exhibition are five of the thirteen rare vintage prints from a promised gift made to the Metropolitan Museum in December 2003 by Danielle and David Ganek in anticipation of the exhibition's showing in New York. The selection includes superb examples of such signature images as Lady in a rooming house parlor, Albion, N.Y. 1963 and Masked man at a ball, N.Y.C. 1967. Also on view in the exhibition from the Ganek gift are Lady on a bus, N.Y.C. 1956, Two friends at home, N.Y.C. 1965, and Seated man in bra and stockings, N.Y.C. 1967.
Diane Arbus (née Nemerov) first began making pictures in the early 1940s, and she continued to take photographs on her own while partnering with her husband, Allan Arbus, in a fashion photography business. She studied photography with Berenice Abbott in the 1940s and Alexey Brodovitch in the mid-1950s, but it was in Lisette Model's photographic workshop in the late 1950s that Arbus found her greatest inspiration and began seriously pursuing the work for which she has come to be known.
Her first published photographs appeared in Esquire in 1960. During the next decade, working for Esquire, Harper's Bazaar, and other magazines, she published more than one hundred photographs, including portraits and photographic essays, some of which originated as personal projects, and occasionally were accompanied by her own writing.
In 1962—apparently searching for greater clarity in her images and for a more direct relationship with the people she was photographing—Arbus began to turn away from the 35mm camera favored by most of the documentary photographers of her era. She started working with a square-format (2-1/4-inch twin lens reflex) camera and began making portraits marked by a formal, classical style that has since been recognized as a distinctive feature of her work. Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962, Retired man and his wife at home in a nudist camp one morning, N.J. 1963, and a virtually unknown work, Girl on a stoop with baby, N.Y.C. 1962—all on view in the exhibition—are early examples of Arbus's use of this technique.
Arbus was awarded Guggenheim Fellowships in 1963 and 1966 for her project "American Rites, Manners and Customs." She augmented her images of New York and New Jersey with visits to Pennsylvania, Florida, and California, photographing contests and festivals as well as public and private rituals. "I want to photograph the considerable ceremonies of our present because we tend while living here and now to perceive only what is random and barren and formless about it," she wrote. "While we regret that the present is not like the past and despair of its ever becoming the future, its innumerable, inscrutable habits lie in wait for their meaning....These are our symptoms and our monuments. I want simply to save them, for what is ceremonious and curious and commonplace will be legendary."
Although her work appeared in only a few group shows during her lifetime, her photographs generated a good deal of critical and popular attention. The boldness of her subject matter and the photographic approach were recognized as revolutionary. In the 1960s, Arbus taught photography at Parsons School of Design, the Rhode Island School of Design, and Cooper Union, and continued to make pictures in accordance with her evolving vision.
Notable among her late works are the images from her Untitled series, made at residences for people with mental disabilities between 1969 and 1971. These images echo much earlier works, such as Fire Eater at a carnival, Palisades Park, N.J. 1956; Child in a nightgown, Wellfleet, Mass. 1957; and Bishop by the sea, Santa Barbara, Cal. 1964. In 1970, Arbus made a portfolio of original prints entitled A box of 10 photographs, which was meant to be the first in a series of limited editions of her work.
Arbus committed suicide in 1971. At the time of her death, Arbus was already a significant influence—and something of a legend—among serious photographers, although only a relatively small number of her most important pictures were widely known. While her reputation continued to grow through the publication of several books and a few select shows, not until "Diane Arbus Revelations" has it been possible to view the complete range of her work.
Arbus's gift for rendering strange those things we consider most familiar continues to challenge our assumptions about the nature of everyday life and compels us to look at the world in a new way. By the same token, her ability to uncover the familiar within the exotic enlarges our understanding of ourselves. Her devotion to the principles of the art she practiced—without deference to any extraneous social, political, or even personal agenda—has produced a body of work that is often shocking in its purity, in its bold commitment to the celebration of things as they are.
The exhibition was organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
In New York, the exhibition is made possible by The John and Annamaria Phillips Foundation and Altria Group, Inc.
The international tour is made possible by the Evelyn D. Haas Exhibition Fund and Charles Schwab & Co., Inc.