On February 13, diane arbus: in the beginning opened 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 has been adapted for the Hayward following its initial presentation at The Met Breuer in New York in 2016. A specially designed display places 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Drawing largely on the Diane Arbus Archive, a trove including unpublished images, research materials, and notes gifted to the Metropolitan Museum by the artist’s daughters in 2007, more than one hundred photographs bring to light the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 chronicles an extremely prolific period for Arbus, during which nearly half the photographs printed during her lifetime were produced. The show is 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 come from the Diane Arbus Archive, others are 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.
Image: Diane Arbus, Boy stepping off the curb, N.Y.C. 1957–58. Copyright © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC.