Jack Dracula at a bar, New London, Conn. 1961 © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved
In 1971, a photographer died, leaving in her basement dozens of DuPont photographic paper boxes, filled with some 709 rolls of film shot over a span of about seven years. It would take about ten years for the collection to be officially inventoried; 43 for much of it to be shown publicly. The address of that house, home to a series of glassine sleeves of negatives and the resulting silver gelatin prints, was 29 Charles Street, New York. The photographer, of course, was Diane Arbus.
diane arbus: in the beginning, curated by Jeff Rosenheim, is currently on view at The Met Breuer on Madison Avenue. Included are 100 prints, most made by Arbus herself in the darkroom. The work spans the first seven years of her career, taking off at 1956 and touching down in 1962, the same year she made Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. and swapped out her old 35mm Nikon for her square-format Rolleiflex.
We begin with the roll she labeled #1 and the very first pictures she took after branching out on her own.
Diane Arbus famously said, “All I want is what I don’t know.” Diane Arbus’s photographs are so very much about strangers and their strangeness, and that’s part of what makes her, the woman behind it all, a true enigma. In an interview we did last year, her nephew, art historian Alexander Nemerov, said of his relationship with his late aunt, “She is close because she is far away.” The harder we try to pin down the artist and her motivations, the more vehemently she resists.
To know Diane Arbus, it seems, is to set her free, and that’s what Rosenheim has done with this exhibition. The photographs, many grainy and unsharpened, are arranged not according to any chronological scheme. They are hung on columns one-by-one, and those who pass through the labyrinth are permitted to follow their own course, much as Arbus did throughout her life. The pictures to which we each are drawn tell us something about ourselves, and that’s both disturbing and wonderful.
Here, the young Arbus becomes not the prologue to the Arbus we’ve grown accustomed to, but an epilogue. We’re able look back at this early work only with the knowledge what came after, and if we’re lucky, we can find some trace of the person she was before she was Diane Arbus.
diane arbus: in the beginning is on view at The Met Breuer until November 27th, 2016.
The Backwards Man in his hotel room, N.Y.C. 1961 © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved
Lady on a bus, N.Y.C. 1957 © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved
Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, L.I. 1959 © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved
Man in hat, trunks, socks and shoes, Coney Island, N.Y. 1960 © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved
Taxicab driver at the wheel with two passengers, N.Y.C. 1956 © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved
Kid in a hooded jacket aiming a gun, N.Y.C. 1957 © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved
Elderly woman whispering to her dinner partner, Grand Opera Ball, N.Y.C. 1959 © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved
Woman with white gloves and a pocket book, N.Y.C. 1956 © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved
Fire Eater at a carnival, Palisades Park, N.J. 1957 © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved