The experience of viewing a photograph by Diane Arbus is one not readily forgotten. Her works reveal her distinctive vision of a world of rituals and subcultures in and around New York City in the 1950s and ’60s, and the individuals who inhabited those realms. Like great artists before her, she rendered American culture forever changed. Arbus gathered subjects and circumstances together, fully exploring the extravagant manifestations of the human experience that she found inside and outside of the mainstream in carnivals and nudist camps, theaters and backstage dressing rooms, circuses and side shows, wax museums and dance halls, contests and pageants, parties and amusement parks. Throughout her oeuvre, her images are peopled with children, celebrities, religious zealots, middle-class families, transvestites, and eccentrics.
Unlike other documentary photographers of her day who reveled in chance or random events, Arbus’ search for her subjects included extensive research. In addition to wandering through the city, she kept notebooks and culled leads from newspapers, radio programs, books, and acquaintances. The willingness of each individual to be captured on film, despite the intense scrutiny they were subjected to, turned each photographic encounter into a self-conscious collaboration, a dialogue. Through visits to her subjects’ homes or the places they frequented, and a genuine interest in their lives, Arbus was able to infuse her photographs with the palpable intimacy and affection she felt for them. The dignity and immediacy of her works are largely due to her propensity for extracting the often direct gaze of her subjects and distilling it in each passing moment.
Diane Nemerov was born in 1923 in New York City. She began photographing in 1941, the same year she married Allan Arbus. Five years later they opened their own photography studio, and soon they were in demand by many major fashion magazines, including Glamour and Vogue, as well as numerous advertising agencies. Ultimately, Arbus’ personal dissatisfaction with the business led her to quit in 1956 to focus on her art.
In 1959 Arbus began research on her first assignment for Esquire magazine; an issue devoted entirely to New York to which she contributed a photo-essay entitled “The Vertical Journey: Six Movements of a Moment Within the Heart of the City.” Her second major photo-essay was published in Harper’s Bazaar in November 1961. “The Full Circle” introduced her to a wider public as both a photographer and an impeccably skilled writer. During the next decade, she worked for a number of magazines and published more than 100 pictures, including portraits and photographic essays, many of which originated as personal projects.
The year 1962 marked an important departure for Arbus as she switched from a 35mm camera to a
2¼-inch twin-lens reflex camera. The larger negatives produced sharper square-format pictures with greater detail and contributed to the evolution of what has become recognized as her signature style. In 1963 and 1966, she was awarded two consecutive Guggenheim Fellowships for her project “American Rites, Manners and Customs,” which focused on subject matter that continued to engage her for years to come. The Museum of Modern Art’s 1967 exhibition New Documents, which featured her work, sparked considerable popular and critical attention. In 1969 a new body of works emerged as Arbus began photographing residents at state-run homes for people with developmental disabilities. These astounding images,
known as the Untitled series, were never exhibited during her lifetime. In 1970, she made a portfolio of 10 prints that she intended to be the first in a series of limited editions of her work. In 1971, Arbus took her own life.
Organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art with the full support of the artist’s estate, the exhibition Diane Arbus Revelations brings together nearly 200 photographs in the most complete presentation of Arbus’ career since the Museum of Modern Art mounted the first retrospective in 1972. Since then, there has been little opportunity to experience the full range and depth of Arbus’ achievement and wide-reaching influence on legions of photographers. Prints on view, many of which have never before been exhibited, are drawn from major public and private collections throughout the world. The Walker is the last stop on a three-year tour that began in San Francisco and included Los Angeles; Houston; New York City; Essen, Germany; London; and Barcelona. The exhibition features classically hung galleries interspersed with three “libraries,” discrete spaces that illuminate the artist’s working method and intellectual influences through the display of such materials as contact sheets, cameras, letters, notebooks, and other writings as well as books and ephemera from her personal library.