Diane Arbus: in the beginning, Hayward Gallery, to 6 May 2019
Review by Laura Garmeson
There are certain photographers whose work inhabits the realm of myth. Their method of portraying the world is necessarily partial, consisting of moments frozen in and outside of time, and so the meanings of these images become myriad. Like many artists who have been posthumously mythologized, the photographer Diane Arbus has long been inextricably associated with her biography, which swirls with myths, both creative and destructive, from her genesis in the corseted world of fashion shoots, to her ascension within the New York photography scene of the 1960s, and her eventual suicide at the age of 48. Her haunting monochrome portraits of surly children, odd couples and sideshow “freaks” were described as having a timeless, primal quality, cementing her reputation before and after her death. But as is all too often the case, with that label of “genius” also comes the rewriting of history to fit the strictures of myth.
Diane Arbus: in the beginning, currently on show at the Hayward Gallery, chooses to focus the legendary photographer through the lens of a creation myth, displaying over 100 photographs – many never before shown in Europe – set within a uniform of slim black frames mounted on white panels, the majority of which date from the first seven years of her solo career between 1956 and 1962. Shot largely using a portable 35mm camera, these early pictures linger on certain subjects and themes that would recur uncannily throughout her career. One of the hallmarks of her approach was her willingness to venture out to the fringes of society in search of what curator Jeff L. Rosenheim calls “a direct personal encounter”. As Arbus herself said, “for me the subject of the picture is always more important than the picture. And more complicated.”
These complicated subjects gave rise to portraits that are ambiguous and strange, often verging on the grotesque. Arbus’s most famous – and controversial – photographs depicted the eccentrics, the circus performers and freak show stars she shot on assignment for magazines like Esquire. These include portraits of The Human Pincushion (1961), of fire-eaters, trapeze artists and contortionists, and more macabre sights like newborn conjoined twins suspended in a jar. Arbus could be highly persistent if her curiosity was piqued, and she made many attempts to photograph certain subjects, like the heavily tattooed Jack Dracula whom she pursued until he consented to have his picture taken. One of the resulting photographs, Jack Dracula at a bar (1961) shows him shirtless and side-lit staring at the camera with his mouth set in languid defiance; a giant eagle with its inky wings spanning his chest is the most prominent of his 306 tattoos.
Arbus was perpetually fascinated by those who strayed outside of societal norms, and the myth-like aura this gave them in her eyes. “There’s a quality of legend about freaks,” she said. “Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle.” But what undermines the otherworldly in her images is that they are always nonetheless grounded in reality. She photographed the diminutive performer Andy Ratoucheff (who preferred the qualification of Lilliputian as opposed to midget) impeccably dressed in fedora and suit onstage. In her view they had “already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.” She also saw this legendary quality in the drag queens and female impersonators who performed in New York clubs, as in the polished make-up of Female impersonator putting on lipstick (1959) taken in a backstage dressing room, which captures that secret moment of transition from man to woman. As Arbus wrote at the time, her impression was that “like the greatest living parody […] any real woman looks pale and dubious beside them.”
Another of Arbus’s preferred subjects to photograph were children. There are many portraits of children in this exhibition, almost invariably depicted unsmiling, confused or wary, from Girl with schoolbooks stepping onto the curb (1957) where a child twists to glower out at the photographer from above her fur Peter Pan collar, to the famous image of a boy gurning in the park in Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park (1962). In the latter picture, the boy’s endearing knobbly knees and fallen overall strap lend a curious sense of dissonance to the scene, where one hand clutches a toy grenade and the other curls vacantly into a claw at his side. The subject was Colin Wood, the young child from a wealthy family, who commented on the picture saying that Arbus “saw in me the frustration, the anger at my surroundings, the kid wanting to explode but [who] can’t because he’s constrained by his background”. Arbus was interested in capturing this childish realm of secrets, and the painful chafing of the child’s world against that of the adult.
Having established herself as the consummate insider of the photography pantheon precisely by photographing outsiders, the myth of Diane Arbus remains multi-faceted and open to interpretation. For some, notably Susan Sontag, Arbus was a detached voyeur whose photography verged on visual exploitation. For others she revolutionized the portrait form and recast street photography afresh. This ethical ambiguity remains central to her oeuvre and to her legacy. But what comes across strongly in Diane Arbus: in the beginning is the sense of a photographer who more often than not saw aspects of herself in the subjects she was drawn to photograph. The moments she captures may be fleeting, but the moods and feelings they evoke are eternal. The portraits are partial, but they retain an undeniable sense of personhood. In Arbus’s own words, “there’s some sense in which I always identify with them.”