Diane Arbus: The First Seven Years
By Elana Kates
The Met Breuer’s newest exhibition, in the beginning: diane arbus, shifts focus from the late photographer’s iconic medium format pictures to unpublished and rarely seen photographs from the first seven years of her artistic career. The show finds Arbus on the streets of New York City, shooting 35mm. in the beginning, which features over 100 photographs, is innovatively and elegantly arranged—each image strikingly affixed to its own freestanding wall. The viewer is free to choose their own path through the gallery space and little written commentary interferes with their experience. Rather, visitors are encouraged to interpret and explore.
And of the work shown: these photographs stray from the artist’s quintessential style—direct and confrontational portraits that engage and connect with their subjects. Instead, we see work that is more candid. These early images show Arbus detached and voyeuristic. Subjects are not always aware of the artist’s presence. They are blurry and animated or frozen in snapshot-like portraiture. Sometimes Arbus captures empty rooms, simply bearing the residue of human inhabitance. But, there is a sense of distance and observation that is constant. She is working curiously, seeking out the idiosyncrasies that make each subject unique. Arbus was fascinated with these subtle differences, and confident in the camera’s ability to make them manifest. Through her work, she constructs a humanistic and sensitive worldview that elevates the mundane. This approach remains a constant throughout Arbus’ work.
The artists’ well-known ten-image portfolio is displayed in an adjacent room at the back of the gallery. These pieces, which expressively depict persons on the fringes of society, are visually distinct. Still, the early work serves as a clear antecedent. That same transcendent and all-encompassing acceptance is present. diane arbus: in the beginning provides a valuable glimpse of the artist’s formation. The exhibit provokes a sense of compassion both for subject and photographer (Arbus ended her life in 1971 at the age of 48) with its beautiful and atmospheric images. The exhibition catalog offers an especially emblematic quote from one of Arbus’ high school papers:
There are and have been and will be an infinite number of things on earth: individuals all different, all wanting different things, all knowing different things, all loving different things, all looking different. Everything that has been on earth has been different from any other thing. That is what I love: the differentness, the uniqueness of all things and the importance of life… I see something that seems wonderful; I see the divineness in ordinary things.
Diane Arbus, High-School Essay on Plato, 1939 (from Diane Arbus Revelations [New York: Random House, 2003], p.70.)
diane arbus: in the beginning is highly recommended for fans of the legendary photographer eager to gain a deeper understanding of her genesis. And even for those unfamiliar with her work, the Met Breuer offers a touching and engaging meditation on Arbus’ career.
Article © Elana Kates