Diane Arbus, A box of ten photographs, and further details.

“What changed everything was the portfolio itself. It seemed to me that any definition of art that did not include such a body of work was fatally flawed.”
—Philip Leider, founding editor of Artforum

In 1969, at the age of forty-six, Diane Arbus (1923-1971) began working on a portfolio that ultimately included ten images. A box of ten photographs, as she would come to title this collection of work, is the only editioned portfolio Arbus ever created, and comprises ten of her most iconic images from the years 1962 to 1970. Arbus completed the printing of only eight of a planned edition of fifty before her death in 1971.

The present example is one of the eight lifetime sets that Arbus printed herself. It has remained in the possession of her two daughters for almost five decades. In 2018–2019, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., presented Diane Arbus: A box of ten photographs, an exhibition dedicated to this critically important work, which featured the museum’s own set of the portfolio, purchased in 1986. The exhibition was the most visited photography show in the world in 2019.

 

The handwritten title page of Diane Arbus's Box of ten photographs.

Diane Arbus

A box of ten photographs, 1970
Set of ten (10) gelatin silver prints, printed by
Diane Arbus 1970–1971
Each sheet: 20 x 16 inches (50.8 x 40.6 cm) accompanied by signed cover sheet and interleaving vellum title sheets, each inscribed by the artist in her own hand, contained in original Plexiglas box designed by Marvin Israel

“Confronting a major photograph by Arbus, you lose your ability to know—or distinctly to think or feel, and certainly to judge—anything. She turned picture-making inside out.… The image starts to affect you before you are fully aware of looking at it. Its significance dawns on you with the leisureliness of shock, in the state of mind that occupies, for example, the moment—a foretaste of eternity—after you have slipped on an icy sidewalk and before you hit the ground. You may feel, crazily, that you have never really seen a photograph before.” —Peter Schjeldahl, “Looking Back: Diane Arbus at the Met,” The New Yorker, 2005

In the course of planning the portfolio, Arbus used a 24 x 20 inch sheet of vellum (now in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, as part of the Diane Arbus Archive) in order to practice the content and style of her handwritten titles for the photographs. 

Image courtesy Diane Arbus Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A handwritten title card from Diane Arbus's box of ten photographs.

Each photograph in the box is preceded by a title sheet composed and handwritten by the artist.

Each photograph in the box is preceded by a title sheet composed and handwritten by the artist.

A photograph from Diane Arbus's box of ten photographs.
A handwritten title card from Diane Arbus's box of ten photographs.

Each photograph in the box is preceded by a title sheet composed and handwritten by the artist.

Each photograph in the box is preceded by a title sheet composed and handwritten by the artist.

A photograph from Diane Arbus's box of ten photographs.
A handwritten title card from Diane Arbus's box of ten photographs.

Each photograph in the box is preceded by a title sheet composed and handwritten by the artist.

Each photograph in the box is preceded by a title sheet composed and handwritten by the artist.

A photograph from Diane Arbus's box of ten photographs.
A handwritten title card from Diane Arbus's box of ten photographs.

Each photograph in the box is preceded by a title sheet composed and handwritten by the artist.

Each photograph in the box is preceded by a title sheet composed and handwritten by the artist.

A photograph from Diane Arbus's box of ten photographs.
A handwritten title card from Diane Arbus's box of ten photographs.

Each photograph in the box is preceded by a title sheet composed and handwritten by the artist.

Each photograph in the box is preceded by a title sheet composed and handwritten by the artist.

A photograph from Diane Arbus's box of ten photographs.
A handwritten title card from Diane Arbus's box of ten photographs.

Each photograph in the box is preceded by a title sheet composed and handwritten by the artist.

Each photograph in the box is preceded by a title sheet composed and handwritten by the artist.

A photograph from Diane Arbus's box of ten photographs.
A handwritten title card from Diane Arbus's box of ten photographs.

Each photograph in the box is preceded by a title sheet composed and handwritten by the artist.

Each photograph in the box is preceded by a title sheet composed and handwritten by the artist.

A photograph from Diane Arbus's box of ten photographs.
A handwritten title card from Diane Arbus's box of ten photographs.

Each photograph in the box is preceded by a title sheet composed and handwritten by the artist.

Each photograph in the box is preceded by a title sheet composed and handwritten by the artist.

A photograph from Diane Arbus's box of ten photographs.
A handwritten title card from Diane Arbus's box of ten photographs.

Each photograph in the box is preceded by a title sheet composed and handwritten by the artist.

Each photograph in the box is preceded by a title sheet composed and handwritten by the artist.

A photograph from Diane Arbus's box of ten photographs.
A handwritten title card from Diane Arbus's box of ten photographs.

Each photograph in the box is preceded by a title sheet composed and handwritten by the artist.

Each photograph in the box is preceded by a title sheet composed and handwritten by the artist.

A photograph from Diane Arbus's box of ten photographs.
A detail from a photograph from Diane Arbus's Box of ten photographs.

Diane Arbus, Identical twins, Roselle, N.J. 1966 (detail)

Diane Arbus, Identical twins, Roselle, N.J. 1966 (detail)

“When she began to print her limited edition portfolio—first offered for sale in late 1970—she reduced the black borders to a vestigial condition. ‘Everyone is using black borders now’ she told us in her Westbeth class, as an explanation for what had driven her to make the change. Traces of the old borders still occurred in the prints, however, sometimes to define the edge of the picture area, sometimes not. But the new borders were scarcely borders at all.” 
—Neil Selkirk, Diane Arbus Revelations

A contact sheet featuring works by Diane Arbus and text written by the artist.

In an attempt to market the portfolio, Arbus mailed a flyer to acquaintances, curators, and museum directors. Each consisted of two strips of copy images of the prints in A box of ten photographs stapled to a sheet of paper on which she typed a description of the box and its contents.

The cover of Artforum featuring a photograph by Diane Arbus.

The cover of Artforum vol. 9, No. 9, May 1971

The cover of Artforum vol. 9, No. 9, May 1971

After seeing the portfolio, Artforum’s editor Philip Leider was enthralled by the photographs. He featured five of the images in the May 1971 issue of the magazine with a sixth reproduced on the cover, the first time photography had been acknowledged in the renowned arts publication, and the first time a photograph by an artist graced the magazine’s cover.

 

A spread from Artforum in 1971 featuring photographs by Diane Arbus.

A spread from Artforum vol. 9, No. 9, May 1971

A spread from Artforum vol. 9, No. 9, May 1971

A spread from Artforum in 1971 featuring photographs by Diane Arbus.

A spread from Artforum vol. 9, No. 9, May 1971

A spread from Artforum vol. 9, No. 9, May 1971

A spread from Artforum in 1971 featuring photographs by Diane Arbus.

A spread from Artforum vol. 9, No. 9, May 1971

A spread from Artforum vol. 9, No. 9, May 1971

“A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.” 
—Diane Arbus, excerpt from the text she wrote for her feature in the May
1971 issue of Artforum

In exchange for allowing the magazine to reproduce her photographs, Artforum gave Arbus a free ad for her portfolio in the Summer 1971 issue, paired with the photograph titled A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y. 1970. The only purchase to result directly from this Artforum advertisement was by Jasper Johns.

An ad in Artforum for Diane Arbus's Box of ten photographs, dated 1970.

Arbus’s ad for A box of ten photographs in Artforum, vol. 9, No. 10, Summer 1971

Arbus’s ad for A box of ten photographs in Artforum, vol. 9, No. 10, Summer 1971

“I had a call from some art dealer to say Jasper Johns wanted a box. How terrific. First one who doesn’t know me.... Four are sold, two-and-a-half paid for, the owners are out of who’s who. My confidence is absurdly on a roller coaster.” 
—Diane Arbus, in a letter to Allan Arbus, circa 1971

“I saw the ad for the box in Artforum and was quite taken and immediately wanted to acquire it…. Arbus had to print the photographs, and sometime later she came over to my studio on Houston street with the photographs. I know that when she came into my studio with the box I was working on a very large painting of a map of the world based on a Bucky Fuller map. She said: ‘I wish I could do something like that—get in there and do things!’ And of course I was wishing I could do what she did.”
—Jasper Johns

 

 

 

Image: Jasper Johns in his studio, 1971. Photo by Jack Mitchel/Getty Images. Excerpted phone conversation between Jasper Johns and curator John Jacob, on the occasion of the exhibition Diane Arbus: A box of ten photographs, courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Arbus sold only four of the portfolios during her lifetime. Two of the sets that she created were bought by Richard Avedon (one as a gift for his friend, the theater and film director Mike Nichols). Bea Feitler, art director of Harper’s Bazaar and founding art director of Ms. magazine, purchased another (now in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.). The fourth was acquired by Jasper Johns.

A view of the Diane Arbus: A box of ten photographs exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum for American Art.

Installation view, Diane Arbus: A box of ten photographs, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C., 2018

Installation view, Diane Arbus: A box of ten photographs, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C., 2018

“Contemporary photographic discourse begins with Diane Arbus’s work, and... A Box of ten photographs is that work’s grand summation. The portfolio established the foundation for Arbus’s later fame, bridging a lifetime of modest recognition with a posthumous career of extraordinary acclaim and ushering in photography’s acceptance into the realm of serious art.’’

—Curator John Jacob, in an introduction to a panel discussion on the exhibition Diane Arbus: A Box of Ten Photographs, Smithsonian American Art Museum

A year after Arbus’s death, A box of ten photographs was featured in the American pavilion at the 1972 Venice Biennale—the first time any photographer had been so honored.

An installation view of Diane Arbus's Box of ten photographs at the Venice Biennale.

Installation view, the American pavilion at the the 36th Venice Biennale, 1972, curated by Walter Hopps

Installation view, the American pavilion at the the 36th Venice Biennale, 1972, curated by Walter Hopps

An installation view of Diane Arbus's Box of ten photographs in Hamburg.

Following the Venice Biennale, the American pavilion exhibition toured Europe under the auspices of the USIA (United States Information Association), with the title Venice XXXVI. Seen here is an installation view of A box of ten photographs at the Kunstverein Hamburg in October 1972.

Following the Venice Biennale, the American pavilion exhibition toured Europe under the auspices of the USIA (United States Information Association), with the title Venice XXXVI. Seen here is an installation view of A box of ten photographs at the Kunstverein Hamburg in October 1972.

A photo of a Venice biennale review in the New York Times from the 1970s.

“What may be regarded as the first chapter of this posthumous fame, at least so far as exhibitions go, is to be found in Venice, where a portfolio of ten enormous photographs has proved to be the overwhelming sensation of the American Pavilion.”
—Hilton Kramer, “Arbus Photos, at Venice, Show Power,” The New York Times, 1972

Marvin Israel, Arbus’s friend, an artist, and a highly influential and accomplished art director, designed the Plexiglas box that contains the photographs. The clear box, which she once described as “almost like ice,” was an important component for Arbus. She wanted it to serve as a container and a display case so that the owner could reorder and display different pictures easily.

An installation view of Diane Arbus's Box of ten photographs at The Metropoiltan Museum of Art, New York.

Installation view, diane arbus in the beginning, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2016
Courtesy Diane Arbus Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Installation view, diane arbus in the beginning, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2016
Courtesy Diane Arbus Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

An installation view of Diane Arbus's Box of ten photographs at the Smithsonian.

Installation view, Diane Arbus: A box of ten photographs, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., 2018

Installation view, Diane Arbus: A box of ten photographs, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., 2018

Aj installation view of Diane Arbus's work at Pier 24.

Installation view, The Grain of the Present, Pier 24, San Francisco, 2017

Installation view, The Grain of the Present, Pier 24, San Francisco, 2017

An installation view of Diane Arbus's Box of ten photographs in London at the Hayward gallery.

Installation view, diane arbus: in the beginning, Hayward Gallery, London, 2019

Installation view, diane arbus: in the beginning, Hayward Gallery, London, 2019

The handwritten title text for Diane Arbus's Box of ten photographs.

Complete lifetime portfolios are in the collections of the Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge; Pier 24, San Francisco; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.; and Tate and the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh.



Below: Diane Arbus teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design, 1970. Photos © Stephen A. Frank

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