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Diane Arbus: “In the Beginning” @ SFMOMA

Woman on the street with her eyes closed, N.Y.C. 1956; © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All rights reserved
by Mark Van Proyen
“Mr. Falco, let it be said at once, is a man of 40 faces, not one – none too pretty, and all deceptive.” — J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) in "Sweet Smell of Success" (1957)

Even though it has been 13 years since the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art hosted the major retrospective of over 200 of Diane Arbus photographs titled Diane Arbus: Revelations, it still seems like yesterday to me. For that reason, I was a bit alarmed to learn that the museum is currently hosting another exhibition of the same artist’s work titled Diane Arbus: In the Beginning, which, at first blush, seemed too soon to revisit that artist’s career in such a prominent venue. I could not have been more wrong.  

In the Beginning, curated by Jeff L. Rosenheim of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it opened last summer, contains about 90 images from the first seven years of Arbus’s artistic production (1956-1962), undertaken when she first stepped away from her previous work as a commercial fashion photographer.  In addition, there are ten more prints from after that period (from her famous Book of Ten Photographs), including many of the iconic Arbus images with which we are most familiar.  Rounding out the exhibition’s inventory are another dozen images
Jack Dracula at a bar, New London, Conn. 1961
by other photographers who can be said to have either influenced or otherwise mirrored Arbus’ work.

All of the earlier works on view were printed by Arbus, and almost all of them were taken with a 35mm camera, which, combined with some additional innovations in photographic chemistry, was still seen as an enticingly new photographic technology 30 years after its invention in the late 1920s.  The smaller, more portable format allowed photographers to hit the streets and spy on the world as they found it, emphasizing an esthetic of uncanny discovery that seemed and still seems to be the fresh alternative to the carefully lit studio arrangements emphasized by more formalistically oriented artist-photographers such as Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham.  Of course, this mode of photographic practice goes all of the way back to that early master of photographic candor, Henri-Cartier Bresson, but for artist-photographers of the late 1950s, especially those working in Eisenhower-era America of imperial triumph and Cold War paranoia, there had appeared a fresh cavalcade of new and bizarre subjects to take into account. Arbus took stock of that new abundance and upped the ante by carefully observing the emergence of new subjectivities that lurked in that moment’s post-McCarthyite shadows.

When I reviewed the earlier exhibition 13 years ago, I hung my argument on the hat rack of a simple observation: whereas Cindy Sherman took photographs of herself pretending to be other socially scripted people, Arbus took photographs of other people who did a noteworthy job of pretending to be Arbus, who secretly fancied herself to be a psychological freak.  Of course, this was only a slim elaboration on the old “every portrait is a self-portrait” cliché, but it is nonetheless a helpful diagnostic tool, simply because the majority of Arbus’ works are portraits, some less orthodox than others. The most conventional ones are from 1956 and ‘57, and they also bespeak Arbus’ efforts to get a grip on some of the unfamiliar problems of printing from 35mm negatives. For example, in Santa Claus on the Street with a Lady Passing (1956), the viewer is greeted by two cheerless faces that are making no effort whatsoever to get into the holiday spirit. But look closely and you will see that the shadows that define the image flatten out, making the two figures seem contiguous.  In Woman on The Street with her Eyes Closed
Two Cha-Cha dancers performing for an audience, N.Y.C, 1958; © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved
(1956), we see Arbus using a depth of field trick to separate a disdainful face from her surroundings, but again, the darkest darks flatten the bottom of the image, undermining the spatialization of figure and ground.  In a few other works from 1956 and ‘57, we see Arbus trying to reign in the chaotic graininess of her prints, a struggle that seems strangely interesting to 21st century eyes that have been so overfed on brittle regiments of micro-pixels.

The further Arbus went down the road of portraiture, the more clearly she became enamored with contortionists, so much so that we might be forgiven for thinking that she was obsessed with them. This concern was made explicit in Contortionist Lydia Suarez Performing for an Audience, Hubert’s Museum (1958) and Two Cha Cha Dancers Performing for an Audience, N.Y.C. (1958), but at another level, all of her portrait subjects display and even theatricalize the extreme conditions of people contorting themselves for or against social norms at the historical
Clown in a Fedora, Palisades Park, N.J., 1957
moment when the conformist 1950s were just starting to give way to the social liberations of the 1960s.  In some of these works, such as Boy Above a Crowd, N.Y.C. (1957), Boy Stepping off the Curb, N.Y.C. (1957-58), Boy in a Cap at a Dance, N.Y.C. (1960) or Woman with a Crescent Rhinestone Broach (1957), the subjects seem as if they are the carriers of a special secret, while in other works, such as Clown in a Fedora, Palisades Park, N.J. (1957), the secret is revealed in a way that makes the viewer want to look twice at the disturbing image.  In still other cases, their book of secrets is a forthrightly open one: witness the half dozen or so works that take male or female impersonators as their subjects. Even when she is photographing dead or nearly dead subjects, as is the case in Mother Cabrini, a Disinterred Saint in a
Gold Casket (1960), Siamese Twins in a Carnival Tent, N.J. (1960), Corpse With a Receding Hairline and a Toe Tag (1959) or Old Woman in a Hospital Bed, N.Y.C. (1959), we see actual or impending death pictured as simply the final instance of the great multitude of inner and outer contortions that comprised their subject’s former lives.

Aside from the preponderance of portraits, there is another ubiquitous theme that is revealed in the exhibition, one that I would dub “Diane Arbus at the Movies.” Many of these shots were taken inside movie theaters, sometimes of on-screen scenes and sometimes of the projection booth behind the audience.  In Patricia Bosworth’s 1976 biography of Arbus, we are told that, in 1958, she viewed Tod Browning’s Freaks on multiple occasions, so it is imaginable that images such as the one titled Audience with Projection Booth (1958) might have been taken at one of those screenings.  Another related image is a shot of Bela Lugosi playing Dracula on a television screen, (another Tod Browning film that Arbus was interested in), and it is cunningly installed by itself between a group of movie theater images on one side, and a group of corpses on the other.  In Man on Screen Being Choked (1958), we see one of Arbus’ rare multiple
Man on Screen Being Choked,1958 © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All rights reserved
exposures, while grim humor is found in Mighty Mouse Western Cartoon (1958) and A Dominant Picture (1958).The former shows a cartoon cowboy with a hat full of arrows flickering in a darkened projection hall, while the latter reveals a laughably ostentatious example of typographic branding.  Of the few earlier images in the exhibition that was not shot with a small format camera, A Castle in Disneyland, California (1962), displays a stunning richness of mid-tones. It seems most related to the other movie theater works because of its nighttime representation of the famous magic castle at Uncle Walt’s theme park, undertaken at a time before its sponsoring organization became obsessed with their intellectual property rights.  In Arbus’s hands, the image is full of subtly sinister overtones, looking both more and less fake than a real medieval fortresses as well as the cheesy amusement park simulation of same.
One of the special delights of Diane Arbus: In the Beginning is its installation. Maybe it is nostal-
Fire Eater at a carnival, Palisades Park, N.J., 1957 © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All rights reserved
gia that drives me to point this out, but the exhibition design seems consciously pointed toward an almost archeological recreation of what museum photography exhibitions often looked like in the 1970s, before such exhibitions and all other aspects of the art world became intoxicated on the supersizing of everything. For oldsters such as myself, this creates an uncanny effect, buoyed along by seeing Arbus’ work displayed in discreet clusters of no more that six related images set in clear separation from other such clusters. One of the reasons why this works so well is because the large majority of the works presented here are quite small, inviting the viewer to come up close so that their uncanny impact can be discovered as it emerges from the shadows by way of the close scrutiny that they invite.

Arbus’ photographic practice seems to loom ever larger in the history of both art and photography of the past 70 years, for multiple reasons. One is the way that her work was positioned within John Szarkowski’s legendary Mirrors and Windows exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art in 1978 (coming to the SFMOMA later that same year). The focus of that exhibition was on “American Photography Since 1960,” although some of its inclusions reached back to the late ‘50s.  It was based on a thesis that Szarkowski thought to be rather revolutionary — that the work of the photographers contained therein fell into one of two categories: those whose work held up a window to the world around them and those others that mirrored their internal subjectivities. The reason why this thesis was thought to be so ground breaking had to do with its timely departure from the earlier model upheld by an earlier MOMA curator (Beaumont Newhall), which celebrated the “fine print” tradition of photography that was
Mother Cabrini, a Disinterred Saint in a Gold Casket, 1960 © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All rights reserved
supposed to have “transcended” mere documentary. Without anybody realizing what had happened, Mirrors and Windows had perhaps unconsciously revived the esthetics of turn-of-the-last-century Pictorialism, that being the photographic style that was so deeply reviled by the likes of Alfred Stieglitz and Ansel Adams.      

Critics responded to Mirrors and Windows in one of two ways. By the time of its opening, the artists associated with the so-called Pictures Generation (Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince were already starting to gain public attention by reaching toward an even more advanced and theoretically sophisticated understanding of the photographic mise-en-scene. Their work went much further away from fine print Pictorialism than that which was contained in the Szarkowski exhibition (all-the-while indulging in another kind of Pictorialism), fully embracing the post-modern idea of visual representation exclusively being made-up of signs representing sign-systems. From their point of view, Szarkowksi’s exhibition was little more making the later seem like an exercise in unambitious conservatism. In other words, Arbus had simply wedded the
Female Impersonator holding long gloves, Hemptead, L.I., 1959; Stripper with bare breasts sitting in her dressing room, Atlantic City, N.J., 1961  © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All rights reserved
then-conventions of Surrealist photography to those that stemmed from the 1958 publication of Robert Frank’s Americans, and had hit rather gimmicky pay dirt for doing so. Part of the reasoning behind this lied in the way that early Pop Art had already elevated the idea of the artist-as-archeologist-of–the contemporary, which led to their simplistic view that Arbus was simply riding on the coattails of the controversy surrounding that movement.

The other consistent critical refrain about the Szarkowski exhibition pointed to the fact that viewers could not easily distuingish between the work of “mirror” and “window” photographers,
Boy stepping off the curb, N.Y.C. 1957–8
as some had both elements simultaneously operating in their work. To this I would add that the most durably interesting of the artists included in that exhibition were the ones whose work had both of those elements, and not one of them had done so perfect and so forceful a job of compacting and then exploding Szarkowski’s seemingly opposed categories as did Arbus.  This provides us with one of the many reasons why Arbus’ work has been so able to sustain so much interest over the years. Another is the way that her work neutralized Surrealism by pointing out that reality itself can be far more surreal than any contrived montage of eyeballs and liquefied stop watches.  Yet another is the way that the arc of her career navigates almost the entire history of photography in condensed albeit idiosyncratic form, fiendishly bouncing between the polarities of an uncanny and hyper-specific naturalism to subtle and not-so-subtle manipulations of that which is already all-too manipulated.    
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Diane Arbus: “In the Beginning” at SFMOMA @ through April 30, 2017.
About the Author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward.  Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America.  His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010).  To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak's December 9, 2014 interview, published on Broke Ass Stuart's Goddamn Website.

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