diane arbus: in the beginning @ Hayward Gallery

Diane Arbus was born in 1923 into a rich and cultured Jewish family in New York City. Her older brother, Howard, would go on to become the American poet laureate. She was sent to a series of private schools. In American terms, it would be difficult to be more privileged. But her father was rarely involved in her upbringing, absorbed in running the well-known Russek department store on Fifth Avenue, and her mother suffered from depression – so Diane and her siblings were raised by a succession of maids and governesses. It was a childhood of alienation and loneliness.

Indeed, Arbus suffered depressive episodes throughout her life and in 1971, at the age of 48, she took her own life while living at an artists community in New York City, swallowing barbiturates and slashing her wrists with a razor.

By that time she had established herself as one of the most influential, visionary and powerful photographers of the post-war period, and her reputation has grown steadily ever since.

The exhibition layout

This exhibition at the Hayward Gallery includes nearly 100 photographs taken during the first half (‘in the beginning’) of Arbus’s career, from 1956 to 1962, giving you a powerful sense of how she started out, of the incredible gift she began with, and how she developed and crafted it into something really distinctive.

All the photos are black and white, and consist of vintage prints from the Diane Arbus Archive at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. They are generally quite small, discreetly framed. The earlier ones are often dark and grainy in texture, shot on the hoof as she captures street scenes. By the early 60s this has changed a lot, the images gain clarity, the prints become larger, more lucid, the subjects more obviously posed and engaged, rather than caught on the fly.

But the first and most striking thing about the exhibition is how they’ve all been hung. The images are attached to the sides of square pillars which have arranged in a grid pattern in two big rooms.

The images are not in any particular chronological order, and so this ‘pillar layout’ allows you to wander past them in a number of directions: from front to back, or from side to side, diagonally, or to shimmy through the pillars in a random pattern.

Installation view of diane arbus: in the beginning at Hayward Gallery, 2019. Photo by Mark Blower

Installation view of diane arbus: in the beginning at Hayward Gallery, 2019. Photo by Mark Blower

If you saw them from above they would make a grid pattern and I suppose this could be said to echo the grid-like layout of the streets of her home town, Manhattan, the pillars representing city ‘blocks’.

Themes

The result of roaming freely through this forest of images is to make you notice recurring themes and subjects and thread them onto your own strings. Three large themes stick out:

  1. They’re all set in the city – urban scenes, streets and cars and shops, snack bars, inside people’s homes (generally shabby front rooms and cramped kitchens of cheap apartments) as well as various places of entertainment
  2. They’re all black and white, the earlier ones especially (i.e. mid-1950s) having a gritty, late-night film noir feel, almost like the crime scene photos and artless street scenes of someone like Weegee
  3. They’re almost all of people. Only three out of the hundred don’t feature people as their central focus, and in all three the absence of people is their main affect.

To be more specific, the images include the following recurring subjects:

  • night-time street scenes, people standing in the daytime street, taxi cabs, passersby
  • looking into shop windows, down a passage into a barber shop, an empty snack bar
  • scenes from films and shows broadcast on her television
  • circus performers
  • freaks: dwarves, giants, identical twins
  • a waxworks museum
  • Coney Island, famous for its entertainment and sideshows
  • the changing rooms of female impersonators
  • unnerving children
  • fathers holding babies
  • upper class women, in the street, in art galleries, in restaurants
Jack Dracula at a bar, New London, Connecticut (1961) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Jack Dracula at a bar, New London, Connecticut (1961) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Performers

The subjects most associated with Arbus are circus performers, midgets, giants, freaks and grotesques, transvestites and other ‘outsiders’ – so we have photos of ‘the human pin cushion’, of a circus strong man, a contortionist seen over the heads of a watching crowd. These might all come under the heading ‘Performers’, along with shots of:

  • Andy ‘Potato Chips’ Rotocheff doing his impression of Maurice Chevalier
  • the man who swallows razor blades
  • the Russian midget
  • The Jewish giant
  • the Mexican dwarf

Outsiders, people who perform exaggerate versions of themselves for entertainment.

Female impersonators

Another recurring subject is images of men who made a living as female impersonators in various states of undress in their backstage dressing rooms. I guess they have a combination of cheap glamour with pathos.

Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, Long Island (1959) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, Long Island (1959) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Circus acts, sideshow entertainers, female impersonators. They are all people who dress up and perform versions of themselves, who create their identities.

That summary might give the impression Arbus is attracted by the glamour of show business, or be a relative of the countless photographers of Hollywood film stars or Broadway actors. Far from it.

Poor and shabby

Because what all these subjects have in common is that they are poor.

Arbus was born into a wealthy family with nannies and maids, but emotionally stifled, repressed, alienated. The photos indicate that she went out looking for trouble, for worlds which represented the opposite of her privileged, Upper East Side, private school bubble. Slumming down among the proles in their shabby bars, pool halls and bizarre Victorian entertainments.

It’s in this spirit that there’s a strong thread of grainy, gritty shots of ugly working class people snogging, getting drunk and generally being lowlives at the poor man’s seaside resort, Coney Island in Brooklyn. As distant in terms of class, culture and manners, as it was possible to get from her privileged Manhattan background.

Note the grainy, foggy quality of the images. There’s a good cross-section of her photos in this New York Times article.

The Macabre

Alongside the depictions of living freaks and performers, there are several images of the dead. For example, a handful of shots from a New York waxworks museum, including a really gruesome one of an elaborately staged crime scene with fake blood spattered over the waxwork figures (Wax Museum Axe Murder).

Nearby is a shot of a corpse at a mortuary, shot from behind the head and showing the rib cage broken open to perform an autopsy.

The Surreal

As a grace note to these images of the grotesque and morbid is a handful of images of the genuinely surreal. Thus she made a trip to Disneyland where she saw a number of stage set ‘rocks’ parked on the trailers or trolleys which were used to move them around.

But this kind of deliberate and rather obvious surrealism was not her thing, not least because these are objects. Arbus is a people person: weird, disturbing and unsettling people, maybe, but it the strangeness of humanity is her subject, not the wide world of odd objects.

TV and film

Related to the idea of performance, and of the grotesque, is a whole series of black and white photos she took of films or TV shows. As far as I could tell a lot of these were shot directly off her TV while they were being broadcast, although some also seem to have been shot at the cinema, the camera pointing up at a distorted image on the screen.

Either way, these film still photos are clearly related to the themes discussed above in being hammy or kitsch. Thus we have:

  • Bela Lugosi playing Dracula
  • Man on Screen Being Choked,1958
  • a blonde woman on screen about to be kissed (and looking terrified)
  • a kiss for Baby Doll (from a movie)
  • a screaming woman with blood on her hands

As you can see, she’s chosen subjects which are cheap, melodramatic and pulpy. They should be funny except that something in Arbus’s framing, exposure and printing stops them being funny. Somehow they all suggest an imaginative world of genuine trauma, no matter how hokey its trappings.

Behind the cheap histrionics of Bela Lugosi or the woman screaming, behind the appalling bubblegum world of American culture, Arbus manages to identify something much deeper and genuinely disturbing.

How the weird infects the everyday

And this, I think, was the one big idea which gradually suggested itself as I circulated round the pillars and viewed and re-viewed this jungle of images: it dawned on me that Arbus took the same sensibility which had plumbed the depths of proley entertainment, which had faced the waxwork axe murders, which had tracked down ‘the human pin cushion’ and captured rough, deformed, chavvy working-class people about their entertainments in cheap funfairs and seedy pool halls, in smoke-filled cinemas, arguing and getting drunk and watching gimcrack performers, and…

… she then brought this feel for the weird and the strange and applied it to everyday life. She found herself able to detect the strange and unsettling quality of the sideshow contortionist in random passersby, the pathos of the fat lady in the passengers in a parked taxi cab, the mystery of the circus dwarf in a middle- aged woman on a bus, the glittery pathos of the transvestites in the face of a boy about to cross the road.

Somehow, what should be everyday people and banal scenes become charged, through her lens, with a tremendous sense of weirdness and strangeness.

Lady on a bus, New York City (1957) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Lady on a bus, New York City (1957) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

It’s just a woman of a certain age in a fur coat on a bus, what’s so strange about that?

Well, in Diane Arbus’s hands, lots. Everything about this image has become strange and unsettling. It’s as if she had bottled the weird, edge-of-humanity vibe she had found down among the midnight sawdust and sweaty changing rooms of the circus midget and the transvestite performers, and then come back to the ordinary, everyday world of the bustling city and stealthily blown it onto passersby, transforming everyone she pointed her camera at into the stars of some obscure, unfathomable but deeply eerie storylines.

Through her lens they all become aliens caught in the act of… of doing something… of being something… strange and incommunicable.

Boy stepping off the curb, N.Y.C. 1957–58 © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Boy stepping off the curb, N.Y.C. 1957–58 © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

A boy stepping off a kerb, what could be more mundane and boring, right? Except that in Arbus’s hands – through her eye – transmuted through her ability with camera and print – this kid seems to be a representative from another planet. Or to be hinting at strange unsuspected depths, of mysteries which can never be fathomed, right here, in this hectic, over-crowded city.

And so it is with a huge tranche of these images, even the most thoroughly ordinary – a girl with a pointy hood 1957, a woman with white gloves and a pocketbook 1956, a woman carrying a child in Central Park 1956 – all are super-charged with rare meaning and some kind of fraught but invisible symbolism, felt but not understood.

She was dead right when she said:

I do feel I have some slight corner on something about the quality of things. 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.

Very subtle, but very very powerful.

A box of ten photographs

She didn’t stop photographing the weird and the uncanny. Well into the 60s she was photographing giants and midgets and twins. But as the 1950s turns into the 1960s, you can watch how she perfected her ability to capture the ominous quality of people doomed to be outsiders, losing the grainy look of the 50s and producing images which are much clearer, starker, all the more moving for their bluntness – and at the same time more and more subtly injecting that freak quality into deceptively ‘ordinary’ scenes of everyday life.

In a change to the white pillar layout, a room to the side of the main exhibition is devoted to one of her last works, a limited edition portfolio containing just ten of her photographs which she considered her best. Beautifully printed and presented, the limited edition boxes were priced at a thousand dollars apiece!

All ten of the photos she selected are on display here, and include several of her greatest hits, such as the identical twins.

Also included are A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y. 1970, the Mexican dwarf, the King and Queen of a Senior Citizen dance, and the boater-wearing young man who is a supporter of the Vietnam war.

In just these ten shots you can see her major subjects recapitulated: circus freaks, grotesque chavs, transvestites (the guy with curlers in his hair), the everyday weirdness of the middle-aged nudist couple in their living room.

Posed weirdness against spontaneous unease

So far so obvious. But the image I liked most from the set was of the youngish couple lying on loungers in their big garden while junior plays with a paddling pool in the background.

The wall label tells us that her friend, the photographer Richard Avedon, bought two of the boxes, one for himself and one to give as a gift to the film director Mike Nichol.

Now Nichol has made a whole rack of excellent films, but that image of the couple on their loungers reminded me strongly of The Graduate from 1967, starring then unknown actor Dustin Hoffman, alongside Anne Bancroft and Katharine Ross. The Graduate is set in wealthy suburbia, is a story about people with nice houses with big gardens and swimming pools, and powerfully conveys the smothering politeness of American middle-class life which you only had to scratch the surface of to reveal a seething underworld of jealousies and animosities, lusts and betrayals.

It’s a very uncharacteristic photo for Arbus. Not urban, city streets, not at night. A suburban garden. Yet somehow (to pursue my thesis of her ability to find the weird amid the banal) the couple’s awkward pose and their strange indifference to their rummaging child, conveys – to me, at any rate – just as much un-ease, as much edginess, as a photo of, say, the spooky twins, or another one nearby, the kid with the hand grenade.

This is a famous photo. It has its very own Wikipedia article. After getting talking to him in the park and getting his parents permission to photograph him, she circled him getting to adopt different faces and poses, before selecting the one where he’s pulling the funniest face and looking, well, weirdest.

In the later photos, the exhibition gives us an increasing sense of the photographer arranging, engaging with and posing her subjects like this, a change from the more casual, fly-on-the-wall street photography of the 50s. They become more clearly framed and shot. It’s after the period covered by the show, from 1962 onwards, that she produces the images she’s most famous for.

But this, I think, is why I like the couple in the garden – it’s obviously been set up but it’s not a pose, it’s one among, presumably, a set of shots, and yet it captures very well the quality I’m on about – the more subtle end of her work, the capturing of dis-ease in the midst of the what ought to be the everyday.

Only connect

There’s another aspect to the Child with a toy hand grenade photo. The boy’s name was Colin Wood. Years later he gave an interview to the Washington Post about the experience of being photographed by Diane Arbus.

My parents had divorced and there was a general feeling of loneliness, a sense of being abandoned. I was just exploding. She saw that and it’s like… commiseration. She captured the loneliness of everyone. It’s all people who want to connect but don’t know how to connect. And I think that’s how she felt about herself. She felt damaged and she hoped that by wallowing in that feeling, through photography, she could transcend herself.

It would be easy to take this testimony and what we know about her unhappy childhood, to conclude that alienation and disconnect is the single dominating and defining quality of her photos.

It’s a powerful interpretation because it does, in fact, eloquently express the look in the eyes of all those transvestites, midgets and so on, the taxi drivers, the woman with white gloves and a pocketbook standing marooned on the sidewalk – people who seem somehow abandoned in the middle of their own lives.

But I tend to shy away from interpretations of books or art which focus solely on the psychology of the creator. Obviously it’s important, often decisive, but it is never enough. For me the most important thing is the work itself, the book and the words or the art and the images. The interest for me is in deciphering how it works, why it moves and transports us, in analysing the choice of subject, the maker’s skill with composition, framing, lighting, with contrasting effects of graininess or smoothness and so on.

It may be that the haunted loneliness in Diane Arbus’s personality sought, drew out and depicted the fellow loneliness she found in the people she photographed. But this psychological sympathy isn’t a sufficient explanation for her achievement. The same, the ability to coax secrets from subjects, might be said of social workers or therapists.

Any full explanation of the photographs’ impact must not lose sight of the fact that she was a photographer of genius. It is because she was a superb technician that her personal vision of the world didn’t die with her but is preserved in literally thousands of haunting photographs (some 6,000 at the most recent count).

The rise of weirdness

Looking at all these images of shabby circus performers and seedy changing rooms suddenly made me think of the cover art of The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan. In the same year as Arbus shot the Identical twins – 1967 – Dylan retired to Woodstock where he and the Band made home tape recordings of scores of songs which were later released on the album titled the Basement Tapes.

The album cover (in fact created a decade later) is an effort to depict the surreal cast of characters who wander through the forty or so songs Dylan wrote that summer, a deliberate invocation of the circus world of bizarre and offbeat performers – a ballerina, a strong man in a leopard skin, a harem odalisque, a fire-eater, a midget, a fat lady.

It feels as if the rich vein of American weirdness which Arbus mined in her very personal photos from the late 1950s onwards was somehow destined to become part of the pop mainstream less than a decade later.

Cover of The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan (1975)

Cover of The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan (1975)

Arbus’s photos progress from a film noir and Naked City world of the late 1950s – distilled in her grainy shots of empty bars, barber shops, Coney island fairground lights and so on – to a much clearer, early-60s aesthetic which presents its subjects much more openly, candidly and vulnerably.

But I couldn’t help thinking that in both incarnations, she eerily anticipated what by the mid-1960s had become a very widespread interest in outsiders, freaks, the circus, transvestites and the rest of it.

In 1957 the word ‘freak’ meant someone suffering a deformity of body or mind, unacceptable to the average smartly-dressed, Middle American family. But just ten years later, the word ‘freak’ was being used to describe the pioneers of a new Zeitgeist, the trippy, zoned-out prophets of new ways of seeing and living. As soon as I hear the word ‘freak’ I think of the cartoon characters, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, who first appeared in 1971, and the whole freak aesthetic went on to have a long dwindling afterlife in the 1970s.

From what I read Arbus herself was never anything like a hippy or flower child – but she was certainly way ahead of the curve in her obsession with freaks and outsiders. And in her ability to find the freakish and the uncanny in the everyday, she had nailed and defined a whole thread of Americana before its emergence into broader pop culture a few years later.

Cover of Strange Days by The Doors

Cover of Strange Days by The Doors (1967)

Not just illuminating ‘some slight corner on something about the quality of things’, Diane Arbus pioneered a whole way of seeing America, the world and modern urban life which shed light, not only on the obviously weird and bizarre (what she’s famous for), but also suffused countless banal and everyday scenes with wonderfully strange and ominous undertones.

What a great exhibition. What a brilliant photographer.


Related links

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

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