Diane Arbus: In the Beginning – Met Breuer Reveals Never Seen Photographs

The images of Diane Arbus are forever burned into my brain.
Her Aperture Monograph was a gift in 1972, and as she had taken her own life a year before, the photographs of those on the fringes, were forever perceived as a deeper insight into this artist’s mind.

How did that complex photographic journey begin for her? After she and her husband had a successful commercial photography business, she left it and started on the revelatory road that created the work the world is now familiar with.

Diane Arbus. Lady on a bus, N.Y.C. 1957.

Diane Arbus. Lady on a bus, N.Y.C. 1957.

© The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Opening July 12, 2016, is Diane Arbus-In The Beginning, at the Met Breuer (Metropolitan Museum @ 75th and Madison. the former Whitney) you will be treated to over 100 photographs that the public has never seen before.

This expansive show, reveals her early work, shot with a 35mm, and available light.
A huge departure from where she went with a Rolliflex, and on-camera flash.
Sure, the camera has relevance, as it relates to how she shot, but it’s the images she made that is of historic importance here.
But since you’ll ask…..
Traditionally, the street photography of those like Walker Evans, who secreted a camera in his clothing to make his famous photos on the subway, to Helen Levitt who employed a right angle lens to maintain a stealth quality to her photos, kept the photographer at a kind of distance. Anonymous.

Diane Arbus. Jack Dracula at a bar, New London, Conn. 1961.

Diane Arbus. Jack Dracula at a bar, New London, Conn. 1961.

© The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Diane Arbus’s subjects knew that she was in front of them with camera. The photograph became all about the person in the photo, who knew she was right there. Nothing hidden. As this show illustrates, this method of hers came early on. Was it her studies with Lisette Model influenced this? Or maybe just confirmed this direction, and her inner voice.
The 35mm using available light is much more of a quiet statement or tool, than a twins lens reflex with a big flash bulb, that she eventually adopted. Remember though, that the twin lens requires you to look down at a ground glass, and with the 35mm, you look through it directly at the subject.
The exhibit pays homage to that sensibility, as it displays her early work on separate, tall, walls, to give each image the individuality that her subjects had.

You can weave in and out, taking in each image, or go from row to row. The layout allows many viewers to study, and catch it all, without being jam-packed. Well designed exhibition.

Kudos to Jeff Rosenheim who has curated this show with a passion, that is very evident on the walls, and the catalog. The story of how the images came to the museum, and this show came to be, was 9 years in the making.They are part of the museum’s Diane Arbus Archive, acquired in 2007 by gift and promised gift from the artist’s daughters, Doon Arbus and Amy Arbus.

Some of the key things are that all of the images in the main room, were shot with available light. Her later, more well-known work, was shot with a Rolliflex, twin lens reflex, and an on-camera flash. You’ll see that in the last room.

Although the photos in this first room have a real world feel, it’s not documentary, but more conversational. There is a connection with the subjects that is palpable. Diane Arbus is the conduit. You can see the subjects in this set were the beginning of the work to come. Those on the fringes, and their tales told in the light of day, or illuminated by the light of their venue.

One of the repeated themes are her photographs of parents with children. Holding their hands, carrying them, and their interaction. I asked about this recurring imagery since the show was curated, and decisions were made.
Mr. Rosenheim reminded me that at the time, she was the mother of 2 small children, so the subject was a familiar one. Confirming that life concerns helps tell her story. With that emotion illustrated, where did the other photographs get their impetus?

A major item needed to point out is that this entire show of her work, was all printed by Diane Arbus. The previous shows had a mix, or presented prints masterly printed by Neil Selkirk, below.
DSCF5004 There was a common rumor that she was not a great printer, and the Selkirk prints showed what could be made with the negatives. Mr. Selkirk was on hand at the preview, so I asked rumors and he answered:
“Bullshit!” said Selkirk.
That’s one rumor laid to rest.
You can see her brilliant printing skills, not only in the 35mm early work, but in the last room containing a rare portfolio of 10 images. This is the cover of the portfolio, encased in the original plexiglass box.


In this portfolio are her most iconic images. She printed perhaps, a dozen of these sets, and only 4 sold: 2 to Richard Avedon,one as a gift to Mike Nichols, One to Jasper Johns, and one to Bea Fielter, which is now in the Smithsonian. Only $1000.

In between these 2 rooms, there is a sitting area with 3 prime Diane Arbus books: The Aperture monograph, the catalog from the massive traveling exhibit of her life, Revelations, and the catalog from this show. Yep, buy it. I have gone through twice on the first day. Beautifully printed by Rizolli of Spain, take this work home with you and pour over it because it not only has the photographs, but selected notebook pages. There is one of her contact sheets in the book, and that is always a good tell on a photographer. Her vision was consistent.
In this room there is also an intriguing selection of the photographs of her contemporaries, to give you a perspective of what the photography scene was at the time.

Diane Arbus. Kid in a hooded jacket aiming a gun, N.Y.C. 1957.

Diane Arbus. Kid in a hooded jacket aiming a gun, N.Y.C. 1957.

© The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

This is a show that you will want to see over and over. In the early work, where each photograph gets it’s own wall, you can scan, revisit, and drink in the imagery. The middle room gives you a perspective, and chance to look over tomes of her career. The final room holds the brilliant printmaking, and shares the iconic images you know. Damn, wish I was around and had the $1000!


I’m a huge fan of Diane Arbus. Have been my whole life. This exhibition was highly anticipated, and fulfills every expectation.
The historical importance of this early work cannot be underestimated. It gives an insight to the trajectory of Diane Arbus’s life’s work, while celebrating her skills as a printer. To see a show where every image was made by the photographer, who has passed away 45 years ago, is remarkable.
The hand of the artist is evident, and brings clarity.

Diane Arbus-In The Beginning

The Met Breuer
July 12, 2016 -November 27th, 2016
945 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10021
Phone: 212-731-1675

Oh, and don’t forget to have a look at the original photo paper boxes, that stored the prints. Old school, from the archives.

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