A Secret About a Secret:
The Early Work of Diane Arbus
By Stephanie Murg
You can learn a lot about a person from her lists, and Diane Arbus was a champion of the form, packing notebooks and appointment books full of floating agenda items for her life and work, even as they rapidly coalesced into one. In 1962, she filled an unlined page with ideas in various states of refinement—“the last of the first,” “the button presser,” “obscure fame,” “Macy’s at night,” “doberman pinschers”—but the word in the upper-left-hand-corner lead position is “Secrets.” Arbus adored them. A new exhibition and accompanying catalogue show her honing the ability to capture the unseen and unknowable on film.
On view through November 27th at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new Met Breuer outpost, diane arbus: in the beginning focuses on the first seven years of her career, from 1956 to 1962. The show’s more than 100 photographs, most of which have never before been exhibited or published, are drawn largely from the Diane Arbus Archive. Acquired by the museum from the artist’s two daughters, it is a rich trove of the photographs, negatives, notebooks, and correspondence left by Arbus when she committed suicide in 1971, at the age of 48.
Born and raised in New York City, Arbus (née Nemerov) always had a deep fascination with photography: she studied with Berenice Abbott and Alexey Brodovitch, and spent 15 years working with her husband, Allan, as the stylist-cum-art director of their fashion photography business. But by 1956 she was desperate to break free of the pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, of dewy young models in borrowed clothes. “When the clothes belong to the person wearing them,” she later told a reporter, “they take on a person’s flaws and characteristics, and are wonderful.”
A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.Diane Arbus
Arbus’s decision to train her lens on those endearing imperfections was influenced by her studies and friendship with Lisette Model. The Austrian émigré corrected her student’s early impulse to photograph generic people in a bid for universality. “It was my teacher, Lisette Model, who finally made it clear to me that the more specific you are, the more general it’ll be,” she said. “A photograph has to be specific.”
And so the Met exhibition finds Arbus prowling the tri-state area for extremists and exhibitionists. At the sideshow margins of society, she found fire eaters and razor-blade swallowers, a “headless woman” and a “backwards man.” She lurked in darkened theaters to shoot frames of films (Man on screen being choked, Blonde on screen about to be kissed) and stage performers (cha-cha dancers, a dwarf impersonator of Maurice Chevalier) before making her way behind the curtain, to confront strippers and drag queens on their own terms. These colorful characters and venues prepared Arbus to return to the common ground of the Manhattan streets, where she suspended and preserved moments of daily life with haunting intimacy.
Made with a 35-millimeter camera that she would later abandon for a square-format Rolleiflex, her early work is “incisive but informal,” says Met curator Jeff Rosenheim, who spent nearly a decade sifting through the archive. In organizing the exhibition, he deliberately avoided a chronological or thematic arrangement, instead giving each black-and-white image a slender grey wall of its own. “Arbus was looking for the poignancy of a direct personal encounter,” adds Rosenheim. “This longing to know, this curiosity about the hidden nature of who or what she was photographing, coupled with her belief in the power of the camera to make that visible, is what sets her apart.”
Explore another footnote in The Stories:
The Perfect Medium: Finding Robert Mapplethorpe