Diane Arbus: In the Beginning at The Met Breuer


Words by Diana McClure / Photographs by Anders Jones

Mad men, Cha Cha Dancers, female impersonators, men who swallow razor blades, children and a variety of others populate the more than 100 black and white photographs of Diane Arbus’ early work in The Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition, diane arbus: in the beginning. Arbus’ formative years as a photographer, from 1956 to 1962, seem to reveal what appears to be an inherent interest in the integrity of her subjects, something that has remained consistent throughout her career. 

At times Arbus’ interest in unordinary human beings and subjects often cast as outcasts has garnered criticism. However in this early work, people, places and things do not perform for the amusement of viewers, despite the fact that many of them are entertainers.

The work seems to seek a forthright gaze between Arbus, the shooter, and people and environments, her subjects.  Scenes are stripped of their assumed meaning and re-cast without sheen.

In one photo, a small boy on a New York City street takes center stage.  The legs and torsos of faceless adults dressed in black fill in the edges of the frame creating an ominous presence. The child’s face enshrined in the white fur trimmed hood of his jacket appears serious; empowered by menacing thoughts related to the grasp his hand has on a toy gun dangling in his belted white holster.

Through the cropping out of adults, the photograph elevates the world of a child and creates a space for the re-interpretation of the emotional depth of children and their potential for sinister activity.

Another photograph shows five boys sitting on a brick stoop.  The image frame teases the viewer with glimpses of a faux-shingled house, somewhat decrepit flowerpots, half a front door and half of a window frame. Once again the world of adults is minimized.

The boys, with their arms around each other, all wear some version of worn out jeans, striped t-shirts and converse.  They also wear grotesque monster masks. Their head coverings feel familiar, like those that can still be found at Halloween costume stores today.  Quite artistic in their own right, each mask is a unique compliment to the others; one eyed, werewolf, gargoyle, alien creature variations.

Despite the fear associated with these types of characters in popular culture, the boys’ bodily gestures and camaraderie suggest the fun and revelry of boyhood friendship, not the dangers of the unknown.

Installed on columns in a zig zaggy feeling format, each image in the main room of the exhibition, one of three rooms, is isolated and given it’s own space for contemplation.  Image themes are not grouped together but spread out throughout the room, allowing viewers to put the pieces of Arbus’ vision together themselves. The deep blue walls of the exhibition design and its content offer an engaging treasure hunt in the mind’s eye of a legendary American photographer.

The additional rooms of the exhibition include one with desks and chairs where museum-goers can browse through the monograph that accompanies the exhibition, and another where a “A box of ten photographs” is on view, a portfolio of work created by the artist in 1970.

(original blog post)