This show explores the first seven years of Arbus’ career from 1956 to 1962.
“From the start, Arbus saw the street as a place full of secrets waiting to be fathomed. Even in her earliest studies of pedestrians, her subjects seem magically, if just momentarily, freed from the flux and turmoil of their surroundings. The result is a singular look of introspection. In reacting to Arbus, individuals are revealed almost as if they were along, catching a brief glimpse of themselves in a shop window or a mirror. The exchange on both sides of the camera – of seeing and being seen – raises existential questions in the subject, questions that ultimately transmit themselves to the viewer.”
I love the idea that, in that split second, her subjects are wondering why she chose to photograph them. “What must I look like today?” Did those ordinary folk feel like freaks in that moment?
The exhibition is not organised chronologically and there is no clear route. The small prints – mostly made by Arbus herself – are framed, presented in respectful isolation, attached to a forest of white pillars. It was a battle to get to the front of the clusters of visitors and keep track of which images I had looked at. The whole experience quickly became disorienting – which seemed appropriate for an Arbus show – and as my companion noted, the subject-matter is rather joyless. Hardly any smiles or frivolity. A great evocation of New York, though and a wonderful period piece – from the snaps of films on TV, female impersonators, circus performers, grande dames and other eccentrics.
There is a reason of course that many of these images have not been seen before. They had not been selected as best in class and very few individually had the punch of her more well-known works (such as Identical twins, Roselle, N.J. 1967 and A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y. 1970), displayed in the ‘end’ room. But collectively, these images reveal her unique style and extraordinary skill.
As always, with Arbus I felt conflicted over the ethics of representation and complicit in her voyeurism. According to the curator, Jeff L. Rosenheim :
What distinguishes Arbus’ photographs is not her subject matter, although most people think it is. What most distinguishes it and what makes it so powerful and poignant and emotional is how she worked with the camera – she allowed herself to be implicated in the process.
Most photographers of her generation and the generation before her – people like Paul Strand, Walker Evans and Robert Frank (who was a peer) – were very careful to not have any direct interactions with their subjects. Helen Levitt also made pictures on the street but she followed the Henri Cartier-Bresson mode of photography: get in, get out quickly, don’t get hurt. Arbus wanted to get hurt. She wanted that confrontation.
Arbus was not just an observer, she was an active participant with the subjects in the making of the picture. I believe that as often as she chose her subjects, they chose her and that, psychologically, is extremely interesting. She was patient in a way that almost all of those other photographers were not. For Arbus the experience of engaging with her subjects was what she was looking for. She was not trying to steal a picture. She wanted everyone to know what she was doing.
- The apparent democracy of the curation felt a bit chaotic but the small images pull the viewer in for an intimate experience.
- The gallery chose the Jack Dracula at a bar, New London, Connecticut, 1961 image to promote the show. Talking about the Alec Soth exhibition at the Science Museum, Kate Bush explained that images with the subject looking direct to camera are the most successful for engaging the audience.
- Each image tells a story partly because Arbus was drawn to a certain type of subject – a strong argument for ignoring political correctness.
- “She was determined to reveal what others had been taught to turn their backs on.”