Born Diane Nemerov in 1923, to a wealthy family in New York, Diane Arbus started out in photography shooting fashion with her husband, Allan Arbus, working for magazines such as Glamour, Vogue, and Harper’s Bazaar. In 1956 she quit commercial photography – apparently announcing “I can’t do it anymore. I’m not going to do it anymore” during a spring shoot for Vogue – and took to the streets, documenting passersby, and studying with Lisette Model. Quickly finding her signature style, her work was shown in the New Documents exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1967, which was curated by John Szarkowski and also included work by Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander.
Her work proved divisive and has remained so – some, mostly notably Susan Sontag, judging it coldly voyeuristic, others feeling a sense of empathy. Arbus’ subjects often came from outside of her personal sphere, the circus, for example, or New York’s clubs, and she herself stated that her favourite thing was “to go where I’ve never been”; on the other hand, she could also find a sense of the unsettling in Central Park. In 1971, she took her own life.
Now London’s Hayward Gallery is showing Diane Arbus: In The Beginning, and exhibitions which was first shown in New York’s Met Breuer in 2016, and which concentrates on her early work from 1956-62. Featuring more than 100 photographs – many of which have never been shown in Europe before, and are drawn from the Diane Arbus Archive gifted to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2007 by her daughters – it includes images of children and eccentrics, shoppers and transvestites. “Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience,” Arbus once remarked. “Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”
In 2016, the exhibition in New York was shortly preceded by the release of an unauthorised biography by New York Times journalist Arthur Lubow, Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer, which included assertions that Arbus sometimes slept with her subjects, had participated in group sex, and had a long-term incestuous relationship with her brother. Many critics rejected the revelations as prurient; if there’s any truth in them though, they suggest that- far from coldly observing people whose lives were nothing like her own, Arbus might also have understood what it meant to live outside societal norms.
Diane Arbus: In The Beginning is on show from 13 February – 06 May 2019 at Hayward Gallery, London www.southbankcentre.co.uk/venues/hayward-gallery