diane arbus: in the beginning

By Robynne Limoges/London Comments/The 3Nines Arts

At the Hayward Gallery, South Bank, London 13 February - 6 May 2019
Diane Arbus , ©️Allan Arbus


The first time I saw a solo exhibition of Diane (pronounced DeeAnn by her daughter Doon) Arbus, the spectators were five and six deep. I suspect the same will be true for this show at the Hayward Gallery, as it will include among the nearly 100 photographs from her archive some fifty images that have never been shown in Europe. The Diane Arbus Archive is held at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and it is from there that this show travels to London.

I started by describing the audience at that first exhibition experience as spectators rather than viewers for specific reasons. There was little opportunity to take one's time and study individual images, such was the press of people. But also, there was and continues to be something of the spectacle about the artist and her subject matter. The longer Diane Arbus's work endures the more we are unable to take our eyes off it and the more insistent are her subjects on our public and private consciousness.

In her earliest work she photographed with a 35mm ratio, from about 1956 to 1962. Then she made the structural move to the square format of the twin-lens reflex Rollieflex and later the Mamiya C33 by which she is best known and which she found to be the most exact match for her images. The film format and negative size made a significant difference to the character of her images and is therefore, worth a mention. However, whatever equipment she used, in the results one witnesses the same acute, penetrating, merciless, inescapable presence of Arbus. She is in every portrait, right along with her subject. Some later accused her of voyeurism, being a bully, sensation-seeking. I think as time goes on those judgements become less and less useful.

Does all that sound exhausting? Well, I think exhausting is an interesting idea when thinking about Arbus, when looking at her work. She chose a subject and worked assiduously to gain their agreement to allow her into their private space. Even in photographing people on the street rather than in their homes or backstage or hotel rooms, she created intimacy. She was meticulous in acquiring permission, in visiting and revisiting. She became obsessed, taking frame after frame until whatever public face that might have been developed for self-protection or whatever self-consciousness that her subjects might have felt and at first displayed to the lens, simply, finally, fell away. 

In her preferred frames from the many she had taken, the ones that became the iconic version of her subjects, we see people staring at her, not blank eyed, but fully engaged, in a permanently straight forward way. We do not have the sense that in a second they will look away, because we know from her contact sheets that she did not look away. She persisted in taking frame after frame and finally, they embraced the sight of each other. The barriers that might have been projected by her subjects to the public, who were so quick to look away, to judge negatively, to castigate, to ridicule, eventually fell away. The result is a remarkable silence.

©Diane Arbus,Woman on the Street with Her Eyes Closed, 1956

Ambient noise, visual evidence that other things might be happening around the subject cease to concern. It is evident in such images as "Woman on the Street with her Eyes Closed, 1956", and another version of the same(?) woman, swathed in fur, staring back at Arbus from her seat on the bus. 

"Lauro Morales, Mexican Dwarf in his Hotel Room, New York City" is cropped tightly, and only the worn wallpaper distracts us from his slight, gentle smile. He seems enthroned somehow, loosely wrapped in classical drapery, his otherwise nude body squashed against a squat bottle on a table to our right. There seems no tension between Arbus and Lauro.

©Diane Arbus, Lauro Morales, Mexican Dwarf in His Hotel Room, NYC

"Jack Dracula at a Bar, New London, Connecticut, 1961" shows us something different. His charcoal ringed eyes look slightly away from Arbus's face, his tattooed nakedness is made loud against his isolation at a table for one with its delicate still life of cigarette pack, ashtray and short glass. If she took more than one frame of Jack, I wonder why she chose this one, the indirect gaze. There feels the possible impingement of unease in this portrait, his or hers. Perhaps the pub's ambience did not allow the two of them to fully engage. Perhaps he was warning her that he had had enough of her. In any case, it stands out from the majority of sitters, who seem to totally surrender themselves to her steady gaze. 

Surrender is Arbus's hallmark, of course. Who suffered the most for such surrender is an unanswered question.

©Diane Arbus, Jack Dracula at a Bar, New Haven, Connecticut, 1961

Diane Arbus's ability to create images of total silence is an amazing feat. Even in an image such as the 35mm frame of 1957-58, "Boy Stepping off a Curb, New York City", the intense look on his face as he turns toward her is not just a street glimpse, a momentary glance of someone being interrupted, but a piercing enquiry that seems to go on and on. The young man's act of wondering seems preserved in aspic.

In some ways, Arbus was one of if not the earliest of the endurance artists. Think of Marina Abramovic and her mesmerising endurance performance art in which the boundaries, physical and psychological, between the artist and the participating audience members are played out in a kind of hypnotic dance. Arbus was a watcher and a person who possessed the unusual talent of deep waiting. She spoke of enjoying the waiting, which she found boring but also mysterious. She made no attempt to turn waiting into something productive, which I think allowed her to convey to her subjects her own stillness when they finally encountered one another. "A Young Man with Curlers at his Home on West 20th Street, NYC, 1966" reveals that. The contact sheets of this adventure show us the process of settling in to the moment of revealing.

©Diane Arbus, Boy Stepping Off a Curb, New York City, 1957-58
©Diane Arbus, A Young Man in Curlers at His Home on West 20th Street, NYC, 1966

 Perhaps there is no more explicit example of this process of waiting out the resistance of her subject as one of her most iconic images which is titled alternatively "Child with a Toy Hand Grenade, Boy with a Toy Hand Grenade or one of the two with just the word Toy". From 1962, her subject is a child from her own territory, Central Park. The light is high, one shoulder strap has slipped down, and some think when she took this image it was intended to represent all kinds of things outside the exact subject in front of the lens. It has been written that she was thinking of doing a full series on the rich class of New York. In the extant contact sheet we can see the impact of time on this young boy. Frame after frame, Arbus stalked him, physically circled him, until, one suspects, the exasperation of child-time took him over.

©Diane Arbus, Boy with a Toy Hand Grenade, Central Park, 1962

Others talk about various societal meanings, and psychological theorems, even how the boy's grimace and clenched fists reflect the impotent fury of anti-Vietnam War sentiment. I don't know about such interpretations. But I do believe that Arbus knew that this boy on a summer's day in the park was iconic, and I believe she was not going to let him get away without giving up something secret and precious to her. Arbus spoke about the two things at work in her work: recognition and some sense of the image being totally peculiar; the gap between intention and effect; the fact that "it is totally fantastic that we look like this". I can only imagine the boy's total emotional exhaustion when she finally stopped shooting. 

©Diane Arbus, Widow in Her Bedroom, 55th Street, NYC, 1963
©Diane Arbus, Female Impersonators in Mirrors, NYC, 1958
©Diane Arbus, Teenage Couple on Hudson Street, NYC, 1963
©Diane Arbus, A Young Waitress at a Nudist Camp, New Jersey, 1963

Only relatively few of the original prints in the Hayward Gallery exhibition are from the period after she switched to using the Rollieflex. One sees its advantages in the refinement of her style. When shooting with the Rollieflex, she could look above the lens directly at her subject for as long as each had the endurance. The last barrier of the camera body was stripped away. Or she could look down into the viewfinder to focus and adjust her frame, she could move around her subject until she found her desired position (rather than asking them to move and adjust) and her subject could stare at her taking those actions. It is a process that is interesting to note because it is less directly confrontational, more passive/aggressive if you will. But it is important to note that even with the 35mm Nikon, she used the same physical approach and eventually her subjects quietened down to a point of silent brilliance in front of her.

©Diane Arbus, Lady Bartender at Home with a Souvenir Dog, New Orleans LA, 1964

I think barrier is a word particularly pertinent to the work of Diane Arbus. Her biography is complex and lends itself to speculation and possibly spurious sensationalism. She was born a Nemerov. Her father owned a famous 5th Avenue department store. She lived on Central Park West. She was married to Allan Arbus and worked with him for years in his fashion photography business. They had two daughters, Doon and Amy. She was born wealthy and found it a burden, found in her upbringing the weight of knowing so clearly the limitations of what was allowed. What was prohibited was what she was interested in.

Arbus has spoken of the fact that her favourite thing was to go where she had never been and the excited anticipation she felt going to someone else's house. She was eager, more than eager, to go to places and to come to know people who existed totally outside her privileged realm. The camera allowed her to pass through, to ask permission to enter lives lived outside of the pressurised atmosphere of then mainstream society, to satisfy her attraction to people who faced unendurable discrimination. About her work that became the so-called Freaks series, Arbus stressed that unlike most people, who lived with the persistent fear of being traumatised, freaks were free of that limitation. 'Freaks have already passed their test in life...they are aristocrats. 

Diane with Doon and Amy, Shelter Island, 1956, ©️Allan Arbus

The more she succeeded in the adventure of meeting and gaining admittance into worlds she could never know, the more she sought them out. She acknowledged that while growing up she had been regularly praised, even when in her view, she was undeserving. The result was that having never known adversity, she did not have heroes. The people on the street of the Lower East Side, in the subways, making their way through the pathways of Coney Island, participants of the complex social structure in Washington Square enthralled her, and quite unashamedly I think she knew they were her ticket away from her own personal history into history itself.

Do the image of the young boy with the toy grenade and also the portraits of people in residences for the mentally retarded which Thames and Hudson published after Diane Arbus had committed suicide as Untitled, raise questions about permission and how it is acquired, and whether or not a certain moral ambiguity entered into Arbus's process? She has written exactly the opposite. At the conclusion of the series, Arbus wrote... "Finally, what I've been searching for." 

The publisher describes the results of this body of work as achieving a lyricism, an emotional purity that sets [them] apart from all her other accomplishments, that "Unititled may well be Arbus's most transcendent, most romantic vision. It is a celebration of the singularity and connectedness of each and every one of us." Doon Arbus writes in the Afterward to the book "They are revelatory rather than didactic, but their very existence seems proof that nothing conjured by the imagination could be as awesome or exhilarating or magical or baffling as an encounter with reality."

©Diane Arbus, Untitled (7) 1970-71
©Diane Arbus, Untitled (49) 1970-71
Diane Arbus at the “New Documents” show, Museum of Modern Art, 1967 ©️Dan Budnik


diane arbus: in the beginning

at the Hayward Gallery

South Bank Centre

337-338 Belvedere Road

London SE1 8XX

Telephone: 020 3879 9555

Open Hours:

Tuesdays: Closed

Every other day: 11.00am - 7.00pm

Thursday evenings: open until 9.00pm

PLEASE NOTE: ALL PHOTOGRAPHS IN THIS ARTICLE ARE © ESTATE OF DIANE ARBUS, LLC. They must not be reproduced without copyright designation.

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