Thursday, September 1, 2016

Photo Exhibit: Diane Arbus at Met Breuer

Although Diane Arbus is generally considered one of the most important photographers of the twentieth century, her work has not that often been exhibited since her death at age 48 in 1971.  I was all the more interested then in seeing the current show, Diane Arbus: In the Beginning, at the Met Museum's new space at the Breuer, formerly the site of the Whitney Museum.

The exhibit limits itself to the period from 1956 to 1962 when Arbus first broke away from the fashion photography she had been producing with her husband Allan Arbus.  During these years, Arbus worked exclusively in 35mm format before moving on to a medium format camera (according to Patricia Bosworth's biography, a Pentax).

Although it was obvious from looking at the 100+ photos on view that Arbus was still refining her style at this point, it was clear that she already understood the direction she wished to pursue.  Her predilection for the unusual and grotesque is readily apparent.  It was during this period that she produced some of her best known photos, most famously the grimacing young boy holding a toy hand grenade in Central Park.  Many of the photos were of female impersonators and even more were shots taken of classic films, such as Dracula, being shown on television or movie screens.  The interiors of movie theaters and empty stores also provided her with subject matter.

In a separate gallery, nine of the ten prints from Arbus's one and only portfolio were placed on view along with the title page she'd written out by hand.  These prints included her most iconic photos, such as that of two twin girls standing side by side.  Also among them was the freakish shot of a giant standing in a stooped over position beside his normal sized parents in their Bronx living room.  Why the tenth print was placed in an outer gallery rather than here with the other nine was not explained.

In another room were hung works by those photographers who had exerted an early influence on Arbus.  The usual suspects were all present - Robert FrankGary WinograndLee Friedlander and, of course, Lisette Model under whom Arbus briefly studied. (Curiously, there were no works shown by Berenice Abbott who had also instructed Arbus at an earlier point in her career.)  There was also a street portrait by the German photographer August Sander whom one would usually not associate with Arbus's more spontaneous style; on the other hand, his ability to create a sense of normalcy in the portrayal of his subjects was germane to what Arbus was attempting in her own oeuvre.

One shortcoming of the exhibit was the lack of technical information.  No data was provided regarding the cameras Arbus used or the film she shot on.  It might have been Kodak Tri-X, first introduced in 35mm format in 1954, but that's just an educated guess.  Since the majority of the photos were taken in low light, it would have been interesting to know if the film had been "pushed" (i.e., shot at a higher speed than the film's stated ISO).  Unfortunately, the handsomely designed catalog was also lacking this information, at least as far as I could tell while browsing through it.  When I asked if a curator was available, I was told none was on site to answer my questions.

One aspect of Arbus's work that is not often mentioned is her skill in the darkroom.  All the works on view were extremely well printed, but no information was provided as to whether or not these were actually vintage prints.  (It's worth noting that those photographs reproduced in a 2003 publication, Revelations, had not been printed by Arbus herself.)  At the exhibit, a few empty boxes of 11 x 14" Dupont enlarging paper were shown in a glass case to one side.  I found this significant because I had always regarded Agfa Portriga Rapid as the photographer's paper of choice.  It also would have been very helpful in understanding the decisions Arbus had made in the darkroom if the photographer's contact sheets had here been made available for study.

As for the venue itself, the Met has apparently made no major renovations to the Whitney's old space other than a quick paint job. The galleries on the second floor where the exhibit was held were fairly spacious - a good thing considering how crowded they were - and included a table and stools as well as a few more comfortable armchairs.

The exhibit continues through November 27, 2016.

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