Diane Arbus: In the Beginning at the Hayward Gallery
Nearly half a century has passed since the hugely influential American photographer Diane Arbus took her own life, in 1971, at the age of 48. The current Hayward gallery exhibition, In the Beginning, which has journeyed across the pond from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, offers an opportunity to experience the formative first seven years of her practice, featuring photographs mostly taken between 1956 and 1962. Close to one hundred of her images can be viewed here, two-thirds of which have never been shown in the UK.
Born into a wealthy New York family in 1923, Arbus would take most of her photographs in locations such as Times Square, the Lower East Side and Coney Island. Before “going it alone”, she ran a fashion studio with her photographer husband, Allan, working as the director and stylist, producing photos for the like of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. Then, in 1956 she found inspiration while at Lisette Model’s photographic workshop and began seriously pursuing the work for which she is now recognised. That year she labelled a 35mm roll of film “#1”, declaring her new independent artistic career. Tiring of the highly controlled commercial environment, Arbus would venture out, camera in hand, into the huge metropolis over the following 15 years.
This highly impressive and originally displayed exhibition charts the evolution of the subject’s early work with a 35mm camera to the square format she used from 1962. At the Hayward, each small black-and-white print has been attached to one side of a tall, white rectangular column, with visitors free to explore this forest of captured moments as they see fit. The finale of the show sees the presentation of A Box of Ten Photographs, a portfolio of prints made in 1970 and 1971 which the artist intended to be the first in a series of limited editions of her work. It’s comprised of some of her most celebrated portraits including Identical Twins, Roselle, N.J. (1967) and A Young Brooklyn Family Going for a Sunday Outing, N.Y.C. (1968).
For the majority of this show, the viewer sees the photographer honing her craft in the years before she changed to a square format. Most of the images are vintage prints personally developed by the artist. She seems to have pretty quickly arrived at her distinctive, psychologically loaded style. Arbus has a way of drawing you into her photographs: behind each striking image, such as Five Members of The Monster Fan Club, N.Y.C. (1961), it would appear there is a story tantalisingly beyond our reach. She casts her wonderful eye – with her innate sensibility for composition, contrast and content – onto the unnoticed moments and people.
Arbus is known for photographing those on the fringes of society. She turned her camera to circus acts, drag queens and sideshow “freaks”, as they were then called. The artist would lay great importance on the building of a rapport with such subjects, frequently to the extent of forging friendships with them. The current exhibition features plenty of images from these collaborations, such as Female Impersonator Holding Long Gloves, Hempstead, L.I. (1959). Her motives for photographing these individuals have proved divisive with some, like the critic Susan Sontag, who accused her of voyeurism. What cannot be disputed, however, is that Arbus had an uncanny ability to capture momentary snapshots of both the ordinary and extraordinary. She was endlessly curious of the world around her. Her most memorable images, Lady on a Bus, N.Y.C. (1957), Child with a Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. (1962) and Jack Dracula at a Bar, New London, Conn. (1961), still have a strange power to captivate, amuse and unsettle.
Featured Image: Diane Arbus, Jack Dracula at a bar, New London, Conn., 1961. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York/ Copyright © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Diane Arbus: In the Beginning is at the Hayward Gallery from 13th February until 6th May 2019. For further information visit the exhibition’s website here.