Much has been written about Diane Arbus—the person and the images—in the 50 years since the Museum of Modern Art mounted its posthumous landmark retrospective of her photographs in November 1972. A recent restaging of that exhibition at David Zwirner, co-organized with Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, made visitors acutely aware of the work’s public reception even before entering the exhibition: An introductory note on the gallery windows recounted how the MoMA exhibition “precipitated an eruption of praise and outrage from critics and scholars, a war of words that continues to this day.” Inside, dozens of unattributed quotes wallpapered the lobby, ranging from acidic ridicule to ardent praise. In addition, the exhibition was accompanied by Diane Arbus Documents, a 500-page tome that assembles facsimiles of nearly 70 texts, including exhibition and book reviews, biographical profiles, scholarly essays, and even a master’s thesis. By foregrounding the literature on Arbus, the show acknowledged that the artist’s reputation has often overshadowed her images. Thankfully, it also allowed the photographs to speak for themselves.
Curated by John Szarkowski, the original presentation opened at MoMA just 15 months after the artist took her own life in July 1971. While the Zwirner exhibition replicated the original 113-work checklist, the expansive installation, spread across two floors, afforded Arbus’s images more room to breathe. At MoMA, Szarkowski arranged the photographs in tightly clustered groups, creating the impression of structure despite the lack of any organizing principle. Here, the framed prints were even more randomly arranged but hung at even intervals, producing a democracy of space that refused to prioritize any one image. The effect was akin to studying many of these same pictures one at a time in Arbus’s well-known Aperture monograph, which served as the MoMA retrospective’s unofficial catalogue and was for many years the way most people accessed her work.
The real gift of this re-presentation was that it allowed contemporary viewers to get a sense of the impact that Arbus’s oeuvre may have had when first assembled for public consumption. Arbus’s photographs from the 1950s and early 1960s are mostly New York City street scenes in grainy 35mm. A select few, mainly the tender backstage portraits of drag queens, possess the intimacy that would become the hallmark of her later work. When she started using medium-format cameras in 1962, her images gained detail and clarity, and her subjects moved increasingly to the fore. Held low at her chest or waist, the larger cameras enabled Arbus to engage with her subjects face-to-face. The exchange of gazes resulted in some of her best-known images, portraits that demand attention: a tattooed carny, a Mexican dwarf lounging in bed, various triplets and identical twins, a young child manically clenching a toy hand grenade. Widely reproduced in art magazines as well as popular media, these images are practically seared into our minds as “Arbuses.” Yet it is her lesser-known work—including a close-up of a plump sleeping newborn, a transgender man joyously posing with a framed picture of Marilyn Monroe, and two disaffected young women in matching raincoats—that expanded and bolstered the themes of her practice.
Though some critics accused Arbus of exploiting her subjects, others praised her as a compassionate collaborator. She was drawn to marginalized figures but just as frequently photographed so-called normal people going about their lives—on park benches, at parties, in their homes. Through her lens, Arbus captured a variety of lived experiences without imposing a hierarchy. In the press, however, her subjects were derided as “freaks” and “losers.” Even Susan Sontag, in a 1973 essay for the New York Review of Books, reduced the conversation to such base binaries as beauty and ugliness. “All the people are grotesques,” she wrote. “Do they know how grotesque they are? It seems as if they don’t.” Looking at Arbus’s portraits today, it’s hard to imagine why the initial response was so often vitriolic. Was it the outsider status of her subjects that unsettled? Or was it the intimacy of their poses and glances, their confidence and candor, the audacity of the photographer to give center stage to people who were supposed to remain outside the picture frame?
As the executor of Diane Arbus’s estate, Doon Arbus has at times wielded suffocating power over the presentation and analysis of her mother’s work. On the occasion of another major retrospective in 2003, she wrote: “The photographs needed me . . . to safeguard them—however unsuccessfully—from an onslaught of theory and interpretation.” The estate has infamously required publishers to submit articles for editorial review before providing image rights, prompting two publications, Artforum and October, to publish essays without images in protest of these attempts at censorship. Given the Arbus estate’s framing of the public reception as a battle over the images themselves, this show could be read as a corrective or a peace offering, suggesting its belated acceptance of the critical discourse as evidence of the work’s importance.