diane arbus: in the beginning is the definitive study of the artist’s first seven years of work, from 1956 to 1962.
In the following blog post, which is drawn from Yale books Unbound blog, Jeff L. Rosenheim and Karan Rinaldo, the authors of the catalogue, diane arbus: in the beginning and the curators of the accompanying Met Museum exhibition, talk about Arbus’s work and what went into creating this remarkable exhibition catalogue.
Jeff Rosenheim: [Arbus] was 33 in 1956, and that’s not young for an artist to begin to work. She had been active in fashion photography for several years before then, but she felt like she was making a beginning. Arbus emerged at a time when there were not many outlets for photographers aside from magazines that featured editorial, fashion, and photojournalistic work. Photography changed significantly during her lifetime and a renewed interest in independent art photography slowly developed. The book concludes at the beginning of the next phase of her career, when she was increasingly recognized for her work, so these quotes bookend that progression. There’s also a set of pictures in the beginning and end that serve as a visual prologue and epilogue.
Karan Rinaldo: The book includes photographs made through 1962, which was the year she transitioned from a 35mm camera to a 2 1/4-inch square-format Rolleiflex camera.
Jeff Rosenheim: Two-thirds of the pictures in the book have never been published. We’re introducing more than 80 new photographs, which represent approximately another fifth of her oeuvre. The publication includes variant images of works we already know as well as completely new works. Some of the images represent subjects that we didn’t know she explored until now—making the book revelatory, even distinct from the exhibition.
Jeff Rosenheim: Arbus’s early photographs are wonderfully rich in achievement and perhaps as quietly riveting and ultimately controversial as the iconic images for which she is so widely known. She brings us face-to-face with what she had first glimpsed at the age of 16—‘the divineness in ordinary things’—and through her photographs we begin to see it too.
One of the things I believe many will respond to is her use of light. Under low-light conditions, through a window in an empty diner, she can illuminate the space in a purely photographic way. It’s not only evocative but it can be rather beautiful. There’s a great picture of a woman in her kitchen. Pretty much every other photographer would have put their back to the window and photographed the light hitting the subject’s face, but Arbus allowed the light to come in behind the figure.
Karan Rinaldo: She enters spaces differently, in ways people weren’t always accustomed to. And when she photographed people, she entered their space—whether it was their personal space on the street or a more private, physical space. She interacts with her subjects on a different level.
Jeff Rosenheim: When she went out on the street, beginning in 1956, she was already a very keen observer of those public and private spaces in her own life, but when she started photographing on the street, she wanted something quite different. She wanted her subjects to know that she was there. Many of her peers hid their camera, or even hid themselves, but she was interested in making a picture only at the moment when her subject has seen her and responded to her. She waited until that moment and then often immediately moved onto the next subject. Within the first 50 rolls of film she discovered something about being an artist in a public space that fuelled her for the rest of her life. Soon she wanted even more of a connection to the subject and she began to get to know her subjects and make multiple images of them.
Karan Rinaldo: Portraiture is perhaps too narrow a term, but within the genre of street photography with which she is often associated, her approach is distinctive—she’s making portraits on the street. Even when she’s photographing an empty snack bar or a facade in Hollywood, she’s making a portrait.
Jeff Rosenheim: She also found a way to make portraits that aren’t about vanity. Walker Evans, Arbus’s contemporary, didn’t like conventional portraiture because almost all portraits at the time were posed vanity pictures, but Arbus gets the subjects to reveal themselves with the mask off. Walker Evans photographed people in the subway with a hidden camera claiming, “The guard is down and the mask is off even more than when in lone bedrooms. People’s faces are in naked repose down in the subway.” Arbus found a way to capture this nakedness even when the subject is aware and participating. And that is extraordinary.