early Diane Arbus at The Hayward Gallery


Diane Arbus “In the Beginning” is an exhibition of black and white photographs being shown at The Hayward Gallery in London from February to May 2019. As the title suggests, the exhibition features the early work of Diane Arbus. Most of the prints are made by Arbus but not the specially created portfolio from 1971 that shows in a small room at one side of the gallery space. Only 8 copies of the original portfolio were printed by Arbus of which only 4 were sold at $1000 each. Following her death, more were printed and the one on show here comes from that work.
The portfolio box reveals some of her most important works such as the Jewish giant with his parents, the twin girls and a family on their lawn one Sunday. A child holding a toy hand grenade in Central Park, NYC from 1962 and pulling a strange face as he does so is another iconic image in the exhibition.
The catalogue does not give much away neither does it illustrate all the photographs on show. The concern seems to be more with the actualities of maintaining the archive which came into the possession of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art only in 2008, Arbus having taken her life (a fact not mentioned in exhibition material) in 1971. Some of the work here is owned by other organisations such as the V&A based in Kensington, London.
My impression of Arbus is somewhat conditioned by Susan Sontag who writes about what she sees as a “freak show”; the exhibition guide describes her work as “among the most intimate, surprising and haunting works of art of the 20’th century.”
The catalogue does contain an essay by Jeff L. Rosenheim which gives some insight into the artist who was Diane Arbus; a chance to see behind the lens rather than just through it. Apart from the cultural context of her work, her philosophical side is enlarged upon; she wrote … “The thing that is important to know is that you never know. You’re always sort of feeling your way.” (March 1871)
There are many intriguing images to see here, contrasty black and white photographs that evoke an era of New York from 1956 to 1962, the first seven years of serious photography by Diane Arbus.
As Rosenheim says, “The photographs call into question what we thought we knew about identity, gender, race, appearance, and the distinctions between artifice and reality” yet also her sixteen year old glimpse of “the divineness in ordinary things.”
I do not find much to inspire here. Although conscious of looking at work by a great photographer, a major figure in the history of photography, I wonder what this exhibition is about other than an important collection of photographs that are being preserved and looked after. The subject, if there is one, could be New York at a particular time in its history about which a series of insights have been presented; I think I need to reread what Sontag wrote about her.
HERE is a link to an article by someone who likes this work.