The late photographer Diane Arbus, whose work and life have been the subject of multiple biographies (the most recent being Arthur Lubow’s Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer), is now being featured in an exhibit at the Met Breuer, the contemporary arm of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. There, some eighty unpublished photographs of her early work, found by her family after her suicide at age 48 in 1971, can be seen for the first time. The images now on display span the first seven years (1956 – 1962) of her near-twenty year creative career.
Arbus was born in Manhattan in 1923 into the city’s Jewish upper-middle class. After a family life fraught with conflicted relationships, and a marriage, at age 18, that confined her to commercial studio work in fashion and advertising alongside her photographer husband, she eventually struck out as an independent artist in 1956. Her work was psychologically edgy; her photographs have been described as “among the most intimate, surprising and haunting works of art of the twentieth century.”
I hadn’t seen much of Arbus’s work at the time I read about this exhibit, but I was about to be in New York for a four-day writing workshop, so I made a note to check it out. Arbus was born the same year as my own mother—1923—and she was also Jewish, and a wife, and a mother. From there, the differences, and the context of their lives, are so starkly divergent, I wanted to learn more about this famous, talented Arbus, whose life seemed to be one long struggle to move from a life of privilege to the very fringes of society to capture what her lens sought. Not many Jews would go, willingly and uncritically, to listen to Nazis in Yorkville, but Arbus did. Who was this woman, I wondered, a contemporary of my mother? At the time Arbus was taking the photographs now being featured at The Met, my own Jewish mom was still wrestling with a new language and a distant country's culture, already married with two young daughters, and living in a Midwest suburb far from her roots in eastern Poland.
I took advantage of the Met's late hours and made it there on a Saturday evening, after my workshop, to view Arbus' work.
Photographs in the exhibit weren’t arranged in any chronological or thematic order; rows of white, floor-to-ceiling columns displayed a single framed photograph per column, with many grainy images across the expanse of the gallery. The experience left me meandering from one column to the next, as if in a maze, unsure whether I was moving toward the end or just moving through. The exhibit narrative on a wall adjacent to the elevators hints at this effect, advising visitors to freely follow any path “as there are only beginnings—no middle and probably no end.”
During my aimless stroll, my eyes fell upon images that were, usually all at once, disturbing, intimate, and moody. The portraits felt less like a framing of their subjects than like the artist’s personal vision of the world she uncovered on the urban streets of Times Square or the Lower East Side—an empty snack bar, an old couple on a park bench, a man carrying a sleeping child, a bedroom in a store window, a clown wearing a fedora, a sidewalk puddle, female impersonators, a matronly woman wearing a mink stole and bow shoes.
I read that Arbus saw the streets as full of secrets. There is a surreal element in the way her subjects seem removed from the confinement of their surroundings when seen for an intimate moment through her lens. Arbus revealed her subjects, unknown to most, like an urban anthropologist.
Many of her photographs were of children, a recurring theme of hers, some disturbing, like “Kid in hooded jacket aiming a gun, NYC, 1962” and “Five members of the Monster Fan Club, NYC, 1961.” I found myself standing for some time in front of a monochromatic scene, “X-mas tree in living room in Levittown, LI, 1962.” The tree is covered in tinsel. Unopened presents are arranged underneath. A lampshade is covered in plastic. A single pillow adorns the empty couch. There are two clocks—a wall clock with twelve spikes reaching out from the circular time face like the sun’s rays; another atop the TV set. The moment stuck at 9:00, a window behind the tree revealing daylight. Arbus offers viewers this pictorial essay of a joyless Christmas morning.
Around the time this photograph was taken, I was spending happy afternoons throwing tinsel and attaching ornaments to the evergreen tree at the home of my father’s non-Jewish business partner. I didn’t know then how atypical it was for a Jew and non-Jew to be business partners in the ‘50s and ‘60s. I only knew that I felt welcomed into their home and among their children. I recall several Christmases like the one I described, when I would happily engage in this ritual experience for many American households—one that was not part of my home life.
Arbus' print, I learned upon entering a separate gallery of her photographs, was the tenth photo in a limited-edition print portfolio (“A Box of Ten Photographs”) that she chose the year before her death.
I had a visceral reaction to the remaining nine images of the series. They were perverse, yet beautiful. “A Jewish Giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, NY, 1970” revealed a freakishly oversized man with stooped shoulders, holding a cane as he hovers over his elderly parents, the parents looking up at him in bewilderment and surprise. “Mexican dwarf in his hotel room, NYC, 1970” displayed its subject wearing only a hat, a stained towel covering his stubby legs, a bottle of liquor next to where he rests his elbow. His slight smile, sad and eerie, his glazed eyes, direct yet distant.
When I saw “Retired man and his wife at home in a nudist camp one morning, NJ, 1963,” I first wondered how Arbus got this couple to agree to pose for this. But of the exhibit in its totality, I couldn’t help but ask bigger questions. What was this artist seeking and expressing? What was her discovery?
I concluded that Diane Arbus sought the strange that most of us push to the periphery of everyday life. Viewing her photographs unsettles the viewer in that way. Her images grab our attention until, self-consciously, we look away. We've seen the evidence of her inquiries, but who can know what her eyes saw?