A Review of Diane Arbus: In the Beginning at Hayward Gallery, London
“I am full of a sense of promise, like I often have, the feeling of always being at the beginning.” - Diane Arbus
With some of the most recognisable photographs in existence, Diane Arbus (1923–1971), made her mark in New York and the art world forever with her singular method of portraiture. The latest show to honour her work was organised by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and adapted for Hayward Gallery. Diane Arbus: In the Beginning displays the genesis of the artist as the title subtly alludes, following the first seven years of her photography career. Comprised of over one hundred photographs taken between the years of 1956 and 1962, the exhibition bears witness to the highly productive beginning of a visionary artist. Over two-thirds of the photographs have never before been displayed in the UK, making this is a chance opportunity available until 6 May 2019.
Diane Arbus: In the Beginning, is curated with each photograph displayed on its own side of one of several freestanding columns to the effect of a plinth for each work. This allows the viewer to choose their own path and avoid fellow visitors in a way that other shows prohibit. Instead of shuffling along a wall in a claustrophobic manner as you peer over others’ shoulders, you can zig-zag through the spectacular space in whatever fashion you prefer; viewing each of Arbus’ original gelatin silver prints separately and differently than anyone else in the room. As Arbus roamed the city streets looking for a face filled with secrets, so too can you wander the gallery and pause to discover a surprising scene looking back at you. This exhibition is immersive, engaging and individual, heightened by the spacial anomaly but also deeply rooted in the power of the photographs themselves.
As a born and bred New Yorker, Arbus utilised her camera as a window on the eccentricities of the people of NYC, Coney Island, New Jersey and elsewhere in the 1950s and ‘60s. Fresh from a job as a fashion stylist, she had an eye for the extraordinary which she carried into her photography. Arbus captured the spirit of strangers wherever she went, seeing them as they saw her with a 35mm camera and then with a 2 1/4- inch square-format Rolleiflex in 1962.
Whether on a bus or train, backstage at a drag show or at the morgue, she highlighted the beauty, the solitude and the overwhelming humanity of her subjects. She often photographed people on the outskirts of society, from strippers to transvestites and carnival performers. In this way, she legitimised the people on the periphery by allowing them to be seen in a time when they were largely ignored. She brought out the glamour of every person she captured and was capable of transforming a moody teenage cinema usher into a movie star akin to a Wes Anderson character.
Speaking of the cinema, Arbus loved movies. She took photographs of many film scenes in these formative years, from kissing scenes to the unsettling Screaming woman with blood on her hands, 1961. In this way, perhaps she was honing her eye to discover the cinematic moments of life in the outside world. Before she photographed the famed Jack Dracula at a bar, New London, Connecticut, 1961, she captured Bela Lugosi as Dracula on television, 1958. Like Cindy Sherman, she had a flair for theatricality and framing was everything. Her photographs are designed so that the subject is all alone and disconnected from time. In this way, each photo represents a new beginning because there is no context of a past, only one moment brimming with untold potential. When viewed en masse, the people in her photographs, however strange or sweet they may be, come alive as a carousel of idiosyncrasies, eliciting a mixed bag of emotions from all who experience her singular gift.
Highlights from the show include famed works such as Identical twins, Roselle, N.J. 1967, A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y. 1970 and Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C., 1962. Arbus’ sole portfolio entitled ‘A box of ten photographs’ is also displayed in its own room of the exhibition, highlighting square-format, very recognisable scenes from 1962 to 1970. Throughout the show, you’ll also reflect on everyday moments like a little boy stepping off a curb in Boy stepping off the curb, N.Y.C. 1957–58, and wonder what exactly it was that captured Arbus’ imagination. You’ll laugh at a photograph of covered rocks labelled as a Disneyland attraction in Rocks on wheels, Disneyland, Cal., 1962 and then ogle the stunning photograph of A castle in Disneyland, Cal., 1962.
You might feel unsettled by a boy holding a toy gun pointed at the camera in Kid in a hooded jacket aiming a gun, N.Y.C. 1957, as you consider one of many nods to violence in Arbus’ work that alluded to the socio- political turmoil of the ‘60s. Undoubtedly, you will appreciate numerous sartorial moments like the old woman in a fur coat on a bus in Lady on a bus, N.Y.C. 1957 and Man in hat, trunks, socks and shoes, Coney Island, N.Y. 1960. Arbus wanted “to go where I’ve never been” and it is beyond evident from the show that she did, discovering more walks of life than most.
Written by Kristie Landing, a Contributor to Arteviste