Katie Guggenheim, Hayward Gallery assistant curator, discusses Arbus’ early photographs with Jeff L. Rosenheim, the curator of diane arbus: in the beginning and Karan Rinaldo, Collections Specialist, Photographs, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Katie Guggenheim: Jeff, you have curated this exhibition. What can we expect to see?
Jeff L. Rosenheim: Most people know Diane Arbus from her late work, but this exhibition looks at her beginnings. In this exhibition we can see a great artist at work – one of the most provocative picture makers of the period in any medium – and we can see how she started out. It’s extraordinary to see how mature Arbus was when she picked up a camera aged 33 and hit the streets of the city looking for signs of life. She was looking at the world in a pretty special way, and she asked questions that other artists didn’t. Some of those questions were existential: ‘Who am I and how do I become the person I want to be?’ Arbus used photography to explore those questions and she sought out people that she could share that experience with. It is those relationships that are in the pictures.
Karan, you have done a lot of research into the locations and people that Arbus photographed. What are some of the subjects that we can see in these early pictures?
Karan Rinaldo: Arbus spent a lot of time on the streets of New York photographing people: children and women in particular and street characters like the street preacher who features in one of the photographs (Man yelling in Times Square, N.Y.C. 1958). As she found her way and her confidence as an independent photographer she went into different spaces and pursued different ideas. She spent time at Hubert’s Museum in Times Square and at Coney Island, and then she went further into private spaces, such as people’s homes. She photographed inside movie houses, which was not a common practice.
When Arbus was making these photographs in the late 1950s and early 1960s what set her apart from her contemporaries?
JR: What distinguishes Arbus’ photographs is not her subject matter, although most people think it is. What most distinguishes it and what makes it so powerful and poignant and emotional is how she worked with the camera – she allowed herself to be implicated in the process.
Most photographers of her generation and the generation before her – people like Paul Strand, Walker Evans and Robert Frank (who was a peer) – were very careful to not have any direct interactions with their subjects. Helen Levitt also made pictures on the street but she followed the Henri Cartier-Bresson mode of photography: get in, get out quickly, don’t get hurt. Arbus wanted to get hurt. She wanted that confrontation.
Arbus was not just an observer, she was an active participant with the subjects in the making of the picture. I believe that as often as she chose her subjects, they chose her and that, psychologically, is extremely interesting. She was patient in a way that almost all of those other photographers were not. For Arbus the experience of engaging with her subjects was what she was looking for. She was not trying to steal a picture. She wanted everyone to know what she was doing.
How and in what ways did she engage with her subjects?
KR: Arbus used the camera as a tool to interact with people. She was interested in engaging them beyond what happened inside the camera.
JR: She would meet someone in a cafe and make a picture and then the next thing you know is that they are sitting together in an apartment and there is a picture of them there. Arbus is one of the only photographers of her generation who photographed the same individual over a decade-long period.
Photography is a recording medium and a visual art but most often, at least in street photography, it is used as a one-time interaction with a subject. Arbus slows time down and it’s a fascinating thing. I think her photographs make us question what the rules of engagement are and what the camera is for. The other photographers of her generation were making some similar observations but they were hiding – she always accepted the consequences of her actions.
There are several striking examples of people engaging in direct eye contact with Arbus in this exhibition. I’m thinking particularly of the picture of the boy in the crowd. Could you tell us about that photograph?
JR: It’s a picture of a young boy who is rising above people who are seated (Boy above a crowd, N.Y.C. 1957) – that to me suggests that he chose to separate himself from his surroundings and engage with Arbus who was also choosing to separate herself from her crowd, if you will. There is an exchange there. Karan did some great research as to what that event was.
KR: We know from adjacent frames on the roll of film – where there is another boy holding a pamphlet that says ‘I am American Day’ – that it was a celebration of new US citizens, which is pretty cool, especially in light of our current political climate.
JR: This picture is about someone whose status is undergoing transformation. It’s a group ceremony to celebrate a new identity. Arbus’ work has always appealed to young people and people who are transforming themselves in different ways through their bodies, their social and sexual preferences, or how they dress. Arbus honours individuals who are in the process of self-transformation.
KR: Another interesting example is Lady on a bus, N.Y.C. 1957. There’s so much going on there. Photographer and subject are definitely engaging, there is eye contact: an interaction that is undeniable but it’s a bus, it’s probably moving and it’s not crowded: there’s no escaping Arbus here and this woman gives it back, she’s right there with her.
JR: That directional gaze is pretty aggressive.
Arbus is best known for her large square format photographs but almost all the photographs in this exhibition were shot on 35mm. Why did Arbus change formats and what was she trying to achieve?
JR: With 35mm you have to put the camera to your eye and it blocks your face and your expression from your subject. It doesn’t block them from you it blocks you from them: the picture-maker from the subject-person. The larger format Rolleiflex was a camera that you look down into, you don’t put it to your eye – so her expression was never really hidden from her subjects. That seemed to be important to her.
Why do you think that Arbus’ work has been so important for people working with moving image?
JR: Filmmaking is a kind of storytelling – there is a narrative, a constructed relationship created by the cinematographer, the director and the actors. Many of Arbus’ subjects are performers and those who are not performers by training are in a kind of drama with her. She is interested in telling stories that are, at times, quite mythological or existential. She’s interested in identity and how you create a character is a question that every filmmaker has to solve. Arbus answers that question over and over in a very poetic way.
The small scale of these photographs is quite striking. I think we’ve become much more used to artists working in larger formats.
JR: Yes – one of the distinguishing things about this show is that most of the pictures are no larger than 6 by 9 inches. Artists today are making works that are cinematic in scope, that occupy space in a different physical way. Sadly, we’ve lost intimacy in the art world.
Could you tell me about the ideas behind the design of the exhibition?
JR: We take great pride in the design of this exhibition, which uses individual walls for each work. One of the things that this does is make these small pictures seem very large, and the connection with those subjects also becomes very large and respectful.
As a result of this exhibition design there is no particular sequence or prescribed route that the visitor makes through the show. It’s open ended. You get to choose your own path and the decisions you make implicate you. The curator does not define your experience, you do. Each visitor has to make their own decisions. Psychologically that puts the viewer beside Arbus, choosing and interacting with her subjects on a one to one basis. It’s a powerful design. With most exhibitions the curator pulls the visitor through the show by an invisible string and you’re supposed to see each work in an order defined by the exhibition design. This show does the opposite. It is daunting and you might not see every picture but that’s ok. It is a very liberating thing.
Were most of the photographs in this exhibition printed by Arbus?
JR: Yes. All of the prints in the main body of the show were printed by Arbus. There is a separate gallery that presents her portfolio A box of ten photographs – those prints are posthumous prints made by one of her students, Neil Selkirk, and they are on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum here in London. All of the other pictures are on loan from American collectors and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Most are a gift or promised gift from the Estate of Diane Arbus – the artist’s two daughters – who chose the Met to be the repository for the life’s work of their mother. This is the first show drawn from the Diane Arbus Archive, which has been preserved and catalogued by Karan. The Archive is an amazing resource consisting of negatives, contact sheets, papers, the artist’s library and her collection of work by other artists.
KR: The papers importantly include her notebooks and appointment books where she made notes on the people she met and on the places she was going. Her writing is terrific and insightful – really just amazing. Some of her words are peppered throughout this exhibition. It’s a wonderful thing to experience her words alongside these images.
What does this exhibition reveal about Arbus that will be new to audiences of her work?
JR: If you know Arbus’ photographs but you haven’t seen the early work then you don’t fully know Arbus’ remarkable achievement with the camera. With this exhibition we are adding many pictures to the canon.
Arbus only worked for around fifteen years but more than half of all the known prints she made are from these first seven years. This work is so mature; all the themes and styles and methods and strategies were already in place. Most exhibitions have excluded these early photographs. The first retrospective of Arbus’ work in 1972 was at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and although the early photographs were included they were not published in the catalogue. In a certain sense that was volume two and we have finally created volume one.
This exhibition is organised by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.