LONDON — Photographer Diane Arbus saw the street as a place full of secrets. Drawn to eccentrics, outsiders and the marginalized, she took to New York City’s byways to seek her subjects, from along Fifth Avenue, the Lower East Side and Coney Island to parks, bars, diners and revue dressing rooms.
Now on show at London’s Southbank Centre, the exhibition, “Diane Arbus: In the Beginning,” mainly focuses on the early, formative years of her short but prolific career as an independent photographer from 1956 to 1962.
But you only have a few more weeks to catch it: Running through May 6, it features almost 100 pictures, with some 50 images which have never been shown in Europe before. These include the man pictured on Coney Island, wearing nothing but a hat, trunks, shoes and socks and an early, well-composed photograph of a bored looking cab driver with two passengers.
The show is organized by the Metropolitan Museum in New York (which holds the Diane Arbus Archive), and has been adapted for London’s Hayward Gallery with a presentation that is both fresh and creative. Arbus’s original gelatin silver prints are displayed sparingly — a single image on either side of tall, free-standing white columns. They are set in rows with no particular route around them, allowing visitors to weave in and out. These intimate, compelling and sometimes haunting pictures depict her unique, direct perspective for which she became known.
Arbus spent time with her subjects before shooting. Arbus’s individuals, predominantly circus performers, strippers, transvestites, children and the elderly are often solitary figures, and react to the camera with intensity. At the same time, they invite narrative curiosity.
As viewers get a glimpse of their world, they inevitably want to know more about the subjects and their backstory. A stripper sits in her dressing room wearing little apart from sandals and diamanté or beaded embellished half gloves. Her lips slightly parted as if she is about to speak: Has she just confided in Arbus?
There is the woman sitting on the bus, wrapped up in a warm coat, looking right into the camera — a mix of sadness and disdain across her face; an old couple on a park bench; a young boy about to cross the road with what appears to be the faint beginnings of a smile or a bemused grin. Who or what has amused him?
The artist was born Diane Nemerov in 1923 to a wealthy New York Jewish family that owned Russeks, a famous Fifth Avenue department store whose frequent shoppers included Eleanor Roosevelt and Vivien Leigh. Arbus grew up on the Upper East Side, raised by maids and governesses.
In the mid-1940s, together with her husband, Allan Arbus, she started out in fashion photography, running a commercial photography business that contributed to magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. But burned out by the work, according to the British Journal of Photography, she left during a shoot for Vogue, allegedly stating, “I can’t do it anymore. I’m not going to do it anymore.”
She then began to roam the streets with her camera, where she soon acquired her distinctive style. However, having struggled with depressive episodes, Arbus took her own life in 1971, aged 48.
Arbus believed that she had something special to offer. “I do feel I have some slight corner on something about the quality of things. I mean, it’s very subtle… but I really believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them,” she once said.
Arbus was also skilled at honing in on strangeness: a scowling young boy aiming a toy gun; identical twins in matching identical dresses; an elderly couple at home in a nudist camp, sitting next to the TV. Wearing only shoes, they seem relaxed and happy, but it is a bizarre setup.
And then there is the image of a seated man with an unsmiling gaze, whose upper body and face are fully tattooed. An ashtray of cigarette butts and a drink are on the table in front of him — the pose is ordinary, but its presentation is rather peculiar.
As well as capturing strange people and moments, Arbus did not shy away from the macabre. An old woman lies in a New York City hospital bed. Her toothless mouth is wide open, her eyes closed and an arm rests across her stomach. She appears to be dead, but it is unclear if the image is a meditation on life or the inevitability of death.
Arbus also shot images on the TV screen — the closeup of a couple kissing from the film “Baby Doll”; a still from a cartoon — as well as from the outside of shop fronts, for example a glance through the glass door of a barber’s shop or a picture of a receptionist at her desk.
However, Arbus was best known for her striking images of people that she described as “freaks.” They excited her.
“They were one of the first things I photographed… I adored them. They made me feel a mixture of shame and awe,” she said.
“Most people go through life dreading they will have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They have already passed their test in life. They are aristocrats,” she said.
There is the Jewish giant in his parents’ Bronx living room, his mother gazing up at her stooped, humpbacked son; Miss Makrina, a smiling Russian midget who Arbus snaps while she sweeps her kitchen floor; Siamese twins in a carnival tent and a Mexican dwarf in his hotel room — he is lying on the bed wearing just a hat, a blanket covering his lower body.
This exhibition is packed full of stories, the ordinary and extraordinary. The mundane is elevated to the intriguing — the longer you look the more you see. Arbus, the outsider, looked in at the outsiders looking at her, and by doing so she opened up an unsettling, arresting world for us to see.
‘Diane Arbus: In the beginning’ runs at the Hayward Gallery, London until May 6.
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