Museum  March 9, 2020  Andrea L. Volpe

Reexamining Photographer Diane Arbus

Until recently there was a sense that Diane Arbus’ work, which was not extensively exhibited during her lifetime, sprung fully formed into existence, rather than through thoughtful experimentation.
© The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Taxicab driver at the wheel with two passengers, N.Y.C., 1956


At what point does a photographer’s work coalesce into something original, supplanting imitation, influence, and experiment? This was the driving question behind Diane Arbus: In the Beginning, a 2016 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s outpost, Marcel Breuer’s landmark building on Madison Avenue, formerly the site of the Whitney Museum of Art, now dubbed Met Breuer.

The exhibition, organized by the chief photography curator Jeff L. Rosenheim, focused on a cache of 35-millimeter pictures Arbus made between 1956 and 1962, many of them previously unseen. The show drew deeply from Arbus’ archive of notebooks, correspondence, film, and contact sheets and prints acquired by the museum in 2007 from her estate and her daughters, Doon and Amy Arbus.

Until recently there was a sense that Arbus’ work, which was not extensively exhibited during her lifetime, sprung fully formed from the New Documents exhibition organized by John Szarkowski at the Museum of Modern Art in 1967, which included thirty-two of Arbus’ now-iconic portraits. Szarkowski’s decision to exhibit her work, alongside that of Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander, marked a radical shift in American documentary photography.

The Museum of Modern Art mounted a posthumous retrospective after her suicide in 1971, and the following year, she was the first photographer to be included in the Venice Biennale. The Aperture monograph, Diane Arbus, published in conjunction with the MoMA show, featured eighty square-format photographs that have long defined her work. It wasn’t until 2003 that Arbus was subject to a broader retrospective, Diane Arbus Revelations, organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the first to focus on her voluminous archive to more fully contextualize her work.

In the Beginning chronicled the emergence of Arbus’ distinctive style. She received her first camera in 1941, as a gift from her husband, Allan Arbus. After a brief technical course with Berenice Abbott, she shared with Allan what she’d learned. On the basis of magazine-style photographs Allan took of Diane, they launched their collaboration as fashion photographers. Beginning in 1947, their work appeared in the pages of Harper’s Bazaar, Glamour, and Vogue. Allan shot the pictures, Diane art-directed. In 1956 she quit fashion photography (they subsequently divorced in 1969), picking up a 35-millimeter camera and turning her viewfinder to the streets, movie theaters, burlesque shows, carnivals, and beaches of New York City. That same year she began studying with Lisette Model at the New School for Social Research and began numbering her rolls of film, as she would for the rest of her life, signaling she was embarking on deliberate work.

Lady on a bus, N.Y.C. 1957
© The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Lady on a bus, N.Y.C., 1957 

Jack Dracula at a bar, New London, Conn. 1961 
© The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Jack Dracula at a bar, New London, Conn., 1961

Kid in a hooded jacket aiming a gun, N.Y.C. 1957
© The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Kid in a hooded jacket aiming a gun, N.Y.C., 1957

Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, L.I. 1959 
© The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, L.I., 1959 

Woman with white gloves and a pocket book, N.Y.C. 1956 
© The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Woman with white gloves and a pocket book, N.Y.C., 1956 

The images exhibited at Met Breuer show Arbus exploring much of the same territory that street photographers, including Walker Evans, Paul Strand, Winogrand, and Friedlander, occupied. Her subjects and style evoke the photographic flâneur Eugène Atget, who shot the streets of Paris in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; Berenice Abbott, Helen Levitt, and Weegee, all of whom made New York their subject; and Robert Frank, whose acute observation of American culture in his 1958 book, The Americans, forever transformed how America was photographed.

Arbus’ street photography, however, works within and pushes beyond the genre’s usual subjects. Woman with white gloves and a pocket book, N.Y.C., 1956, recalls Weegee, who Arbus once accompanied while he shot. Kid in a hooded jacket aiming a gun, N.Y.C., 1957, is reminiscent of William Klein. But on the street, Arbus seems to want more from her subjects than to observe at a distance. In Girl with schoolbooks stepping onto the curb, N.Y.C., 1957, a school-age girl, wearing a plush-collared coat and pom-pom hat, with books in hand, looks directly at the camera, which is just paces from her.

In photographs of circus performers, beach bathers at Coney Island, and female impersonators in their dressing rooms, the photographer’s curious and unsettling voyeurism is already evident, but so is her intense engagement with her subjects, who, almost as a rule, look directly at her. Like Evans, who concealed a camera in his coat to shoot on the New York subway, Arbus wanted to be close to her subjects. But she wasn’t interested in concealing herself or her camera—quite the opposite. There’s an insistent closeness in these images, as if she were testing how near she could get to her subjects, visible, for example in Lady on a bus, N.Y.C. 1957, where Arbus is so close to the woman it feels like she’s just swiveled in her seat to get the shot. In return, that unnamed woman looks straight through Arbus, her camera, and, by extension, us.

Shot with 35-millimeter film, these images—made without a light meter—are grainy, smoky, gritty. She’d found her subject matter, but yet to find her style. Around the time she published her first photo-essay in Esquire in 1960, Arbus was introduced to August Sander’s sharp and composed portraits of German social types from the 1920s. Wanting to emulate the clarity of his portraits, she started to use a Rolleiflex with a wide-angle lens in 1961. The camera’s larger negatives, 2 ¼ inches square, almost four times larger than 35 millimeter, provide far more detail; this changed her pictures. She worked in both formats, trying out the Rollei to shoot soothsayers, bodybuilding competitions, and beauty pageants. A year later, she was making the pictures that became her signature, including Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962. Tense and jittery, it’s pure Arbus.

In 1963, with Model’s encouragement, Arbus applied for a Guggenheim Foundation grant, following in the footsteps of Evans and Frank. Arbus wrote that she wanted “to photograph the considerable ceremonies of the present because we tend while living here and now to perceive only what is random and barren and formless about it.” She wanted to “gather them, like someone’s grandmother, putting up preserves, because they will have been so beautiful … I want simply to save them,” she wrote, “for what is ceremonious and curious and commonplace will be legendary.”

About the Author

Andrea L. Volpe

Andrea L. Volpe is a cultural historian, essayist, and critic. She writes about photography, culture, and technology from Cambridge, Massachusetts. More at and on Twitter @andrealvolpe.

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