Diane arbus: in the beginning was a solo exhibition focusing on the first seven years of Arbus’s career, from 1956 to 1962. Organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and curated by Jeff Rosenheim, curator in charge of the museum’s Department of Photographs, the show was adapted for the Hayward Gallery in London following its initial presentation at The Met Breuer in New York in 2016.
On the occasion of the exhibition, we asked Rosenheim for his insights into the production of the show and his engagement with Arbus's practice.
When were you first introduced to Diane Arbus’s work? What was the first aspect of it you were interested to engage with as a curator?
I likely first saw Arbus’s photographs in 1972 reproduced in the publication Documentary Photography, part of the Life Library of Photography which I checked out from the local public library when I was eleven or twelve. Years later, as a young curator, I dreamed and schemed to work on any aspect of her oeuvre I could. Miraculously, one day I had the good fortune to become the custodian of her archive.
How did the opportunity to reference the artist’s archival papers and notes inform your selection of works for in the beginning?
The curatorial decision to study in depth the artist’s work from 1956 through 1962 was entirely driven by the photographs themselves, not the supporting materials, such as negatives, contact sheets, or manuscripts.
Given that this is the first exhibition of these works, what did you feel it was most important to convey about them? Did this inform the exhibition layout, for example?
The design challenge for the exhibition was how to present these extraordinary, but mostly small-scale (6 × 9") black-and-white photographs in a way that made museum viewers slow down and discover the art on its own terms. We wanted to make sure visitors to the galleries were active, not passive. As a society, we have seem to have lost the ability to look at small things: we want big screens, moving images, and oversaturated color.
Are there specific works you would highlight among those on display as particularly important for the subsequent development of Arbus’s practice?
Arbus only worked independently with the camera for fifteen years, from 1956 until her death, in 1971. She was thirty-three when she made the first photographs in the exhibition. I believe she explored new ideas from day to day and year to year, but do not consider her early work made with a 35mm camera (and featured in the exhibition) less “developed” than her later work, made with a 2¼" square-format camera.
Seeing these works hung together as a group, were you able to make new observations about them, or connections between certain images?
No. I actually tried my best to make absolutely no direct connections between individual photographs. I took this as a conceptual design challenge and developed techniques (the narrow columns) to make sure each photograph could only be seen directly and not in comparison to any others. The exhibition was not organized by chronology, subject, or style, and there was essentially no beginning, middle, or end. Fascinating, really.
Image: Installation view, diane arbus: in the beginning, Hayward Gallery, London. Photo by Mark Blower
February 13–May 6, 2019
diane arbus: in the beginning was presented at the Hayward Gallery in London. Organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and curated by Jeff L. Rosenheim, curator in charge of the museum’s Department of Photographs, the show was adapted for the Hayward following its initial presentation at The Met Breuer in New York in 2016. A specially designed display placed each photograph on a freestanding wall, encouraging visitors to weave their own way through the works. Some fifty of these photographs have never before been shown in Europe.
Drawing largely on the Diane Arbus Archive, a trove including unpublished images, research materials, and notes gifted to the Metropolitan Museum by the artist’s daughters in 2007, more than one hundred photographs in the show brought to light the first seven years of Arbus’s career, from 1956 to 1962. Having begun taking photographs as a teenager using a camera given to her by her future husband, Allan, and later as a stylist in their fashion photography business, the start of Arbus’s artistic artistic career can be traced to 1956, when she titled a roll of 35mm film "#1." Over the following seven years, she developed a passionate, singular practice rooted in direct interaction, in contrast with the objective approach then considered prerequisite for “serious” photography. “I do feel I have some slight corner on something about the quality of things.” Arbus, who sought to establish emotional relationships with her subjects to reveal what might otherwise have remained hidden, explained: “I mean it’s very subtle and a little embarrassing to me but I really believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them.”
In the beginning chronicled an extremely prolific period for Arbus, during which nearly half the photographs printed during her lifetime were produced. The show was an opportunity to see lesser-known works such as Boy stepping off the curb, N.Y.C. 1957–58; The Backwards Man in his hotel room, N.Y.C. 1961; and Jack Dracula at a bar, New London, Conn. 1961. While the majority of the works came from the Diane Arbus Archive, others were drawn from private collections in the United States. Lent by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum for the exhibition, A box of ten photographs is a portfolio Arbus began working on in 1969. Printed following the artist’s death by Neil Selkirk, who speaks in this video about his meticulous work with Arbus’s oeuvre, A box of ten photographs established the foundation for Arbus’s posthumous career.
Speaking of the way in which these pictures, in hindsight, describe the foundation of Arbus’s mature practice, Holland Cotter writes in The New York Times, "she just looked and looked, and moved in closer. … She would stop people on a Lower East Side street or in a park, and talk to them, and start to shoot, capturing a wide range of postures and expressions. Back in the studio she would pick one image. Was it the true one? They were all true. She usually went with the one that conveyed the most dramatic, least absorbable sensation of difference." As such, these works anticipate the artist’s later photographs, among them the direct, enigmatic portraits of her Untitled series, made between 1969 and 1971, that was presented recently at David Zwirner.
(New York, London, & Hong Kong – September 13, 2018) David Zwirner is pleased to announce its collaboration with Fraenkel Gallery in the representation of The Estate of Diane Arbus. Fraenkel Gallery’s long and close association with the Arbus Estate will continue unchanged as it works together with David Zwirner on the presentation of Arbus’s photographs in David Zwirner’s New York, London, and Hong Kong locations. The New York Times first made the announcement.
Inaugurating the collaboration will be the first complete presentation of Diane Arbus’s Untitled series, sixty-five images made at residences for the developmentally disabled between 1969 and 1971, the last years of the artist’s life. These late works are a radical departure from the bold, confrontational images upon which the photographer’s formidable reputation largely stands. They resonate with an emotional purity that sets them apart from all her other achievements. Though Arbus contemplated making a book on the subject, the majority of these images remained unknown until 1995, when Aperture published Diane Arbus: Untitled. The forthcoming exhibition at David Zwirner will include several images that have never before been seen. It opens to the public on November 2, 2018, at 537 West 20th Street, New York.
Jeffrey Fraenkel notes, "Though Arbus’s career as a serious artist spanned only fifteen years—1956 through 1971—we are still coming to terms with her achievement, significant aspects of which remain relatively little known. Our collaboration with David Zwirner and his exceptional team will help the work to be seen and better understood especially in Europe and Asia, where there have been few or no gallery exhibitions."
David Zwirner adds, "I am honored to have been entrusted to help the Estate and Fraenkel Gallery with the extraordinary legacy of Diane Arbus, whose radical work remains as relevant today as when her photographs were taken. The Estate and Fraenkel Gallery's handling of Arbus's work has been exemplary and we are thrilled to partner with them."
Together, in March 2019, the galleries will co-present Diane Arbus/Alice Neel at The ADAA Art Show at the Park Avenue Armory, New York. This presentation will explore links and resonances between the two artists, who were simultaneously creating some of their most consequential work not far from each other in New York in the 1960s.
Fraenkel Gallery, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary in September 2019 with the book and exhibition Long Story Short, began its association with the work of Diane Arbus in 1979, the year the gallery opened. Since then, Fraenkel has presented a dozen exhibitions addressing various aspects of the artist’s achievement, including Diane Arbus: Christ in a Lobby and Other Unknown or Almost Known Works, selected by Robert Gober in 2010. In 2015 the gallery published Silent Dialogues: Diane Arbus & Howard Nemerov, by art historian Alexander Nemerov, exploring the complex web of influence between Arbus (the author’s aunt, whom he never met) and her brother, the American Poet Laureate (the author’s father).
Since opening its doors in 1993, David Zwirner has been home to innovative, singular, and pioneering exhibitions across a variety of media and genres. The gallery has helped foster the careers of some of the most influential artists working today, and has maintained long-term representation of a wide-ranging, international group of artists and estates. Based in New York with spaces in Chelsea and the Upper East Side, David Zwirner expanded to Europe in 2012 with a gallery in an eighteenth-century Georgian townhouse in London’s Mayfair district, and opened its first gallery in Asia in January 2018 in Central Hong Kong.
Image: Diane Arbus, A young man and his girlfriend with hot dogs in the park, N.Y.C. 1971. © The Estate of Diane Arbus