Diane Arbus’s Strange and Surreal Visions of New York

A new exhibit reveals how the great photographer found inspiration in the Big Apple.

Diane Arbus

When Diane Arbus told her husband one day in 1955, “I can’t do it anymore. I am not going to do it anymore,” and walked out of their struggling fashion photography partnership, it was one of the most significant acts of renunciation in American photography.

By the next year, she was learning about photography as a fine art from the legendary Austrian teacher Lisette Model, and soon after that she was venturing out into a new project, photographing the people she found outside her front door on the streets of New York.

Her first roll of film in this endeavor she labeled simply “#1” as if aware that a new life had begun.

The photographs that followed are gathered together for the first time in diane arbus: in the beginning, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s inaugural showcase at their new Brutalist offshoot in midtown Manhattan, the Met Bruer.

Here are the famous and familiar, like Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C., featuring that beanpole of a boy, his face twisted in an inexplicably violent sneer and Girl and governess with a baby carriage, N.Y.C., a poignant meditation on a certain kind of childhood loneliness.

But most of the images are on display together for the first time from the archive that Arbus’s estate donated to the museum in 2007.

The show stops after 1962, the point at which Arbus turned away from the street as her happy hunting ground, and began spending more time around nudist colonies, oversized curiosities, and homes for the developmentally disabled that sadly supplanted her earlier work in the public’s mind.

But what is revealed here is one the nation’s most important 20th century artists searching for her vision in the objects most familiar—bathers at the beach, a newspaper being swept along a city street, a puddle lying dark and inert on a sidewalk at night.

Arbus’s world is mostly inhabited though by the people she lived alongside, the New Yorkers who turn the city into a human zoo of ever-rotating exhibits.

The show gets at what is so haunting, other-worldly and erotic about Arbus’s work. Hers are photographs that stay with you long after you leave the Met Breuer, imbuing the world outside of the museum’s walls with the strangeness of her vision.

This effect is enhanced by the inspired curatorial choice to hang each of Arbus’s photographs on its own slender wall throughout the gallery. They are arranged in no order, neither chronologically nor thematically, and viewers are invited to make their way through the show however they choose. And so it is as if the viewer follows Arbus’s eye as she makes her rounds.

The images come at the eye like random pinballs bouncing around a viewfinder in a tour of a pre-Kodachrome New York. Here we meet Couple arguing, Coney Island 1960, a woman bearing her fangs at her male companion as he tries to pull away; the pietà of Woman carrying a child in Central Park, in which the two look for all the world to be war-torn refugees escaping the evening gloom; and Little man biting woman’s breast 1958, a slapstick street scene which requires no explanation.

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The effect can be remarkably unsettling. I went through the exhibit many times, and each time was surprised to see several photographs that I had somehow missed on previous tours through, as if some wily assistant curator was swapping pictures out in order to confuse gallery goers.

Arbus’s was not New York City’s first street photography, as a largely extraneous side room in the exhibit that features some of her precursors like August Sander and Helen Levitt makes clear.

By the time Arbus struck out on her own, organized street shooting expeditions were gathering in the outer sections of the city like Coney Island and the far west side, and Lee Friedlander, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand and others were working in much the same vein and achieving far more notoriety than Arbus was.

But while they did most of their work their subjects’ knowledge, hiding their cameras in their coat pockets or trying to make it seem as if they were photographing something other than what they were, Arbus confronted hers directly.

Much of the power of the nudists and freaks she shot in her later work comes from the way she came to know them so intimately. In her early work on display here, you can see Arbus figuring out the stolen moments she is capturing are insufficient for her vision. The camera for Arbus was a tool to get at the truth of a human personality.

It is why she found fashion photography so unsatisfying—it was a deliberate attempt at concealment. When Arbus began shooting, photography was still largely unsure of itself as an art form. What diane arbus: in the beginning shows is how Arbus uncovered the power of a camera in a society not yet as image-saturated as our own.

Some of the most revealing work in the show comes from the times Arbus snuck into Manhattan movie houses. There she captured on-screen images and ripped them away from their cinematic context.

Screaming woman with blood on her hands 1961 features a campy cut-away shot of an actor with stage blood pooled at her knuckles; Blonde on screen about to be kissed 1958 is a moment of seduction so fake it looks real.

The images are all surface, a picture of a picture, and they show a desire on Arbus’s part to they reveal a lifelong obsession with performativity and truth.

From these images it is not a far leap to some of Arbus’s later obsessions, the circus performers and cross dressing dancers and self-described carnival freaks who populated some of her best loved photographs.

Some of them are here, most notably a contortionist and a child impressionist snapped from Arbus’s many visits to Hubert’s Museum, a freak-show palace on the old 42nd Street. But mostly Arbus presents the world as a stage, or at least a midcentury movie palace.

Her subjects perform their own stories for her benefit, as in Kid in a hooded jacket aiming a gun 1957, in which the viewer could be forgiven for reflexively sticking her hands up. Or Boy in a cap at a dance 1960, in which a young kid in a watch cap leans back and looks in the camera, his hands dug deep in his pocket, unsure whether to try and seduce the camera or throw it out on the street.

Two images, places at opposite ends of the gallery make this examination of the line between the real and the fake most clear. Corpse with a receding hairline and a toe tag 1959 is what it sounds like.

We look from above. The subject’s guts are apparently ripped open, but that is all that can be made of the photograph. Wax museum axe murderer 1959 features another man with a receding hairline, this one bent over a bloody corpse.

It is as if Arbus is saying that all the world is one of self-presentation and surfaces. You can try to go deeper if you want to, but the surface is where you have to start. If you are smart, it is where you will stay.