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Picture Imperfect 

Did photographer Diane Arbus exploit her subjects? Decide for yourself at her huge new exhibit

Wednesday, Oct 22 2003
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Alternately referred to as the "wizard of odds" and the "photographer of freaks," Diane Arbus (1923-71) would probably have felt right at home here in San Francisco. As it was, she found plenty to inspire her back east, exploring New York City and its environs during the 1950s and '60s to create a controversial oeuvre for which she was both revered and vilified. (Norman Mailer famously declared, "Giving a camera to Diane Arbus is like giving a hand grenade to a baby.")

Featuring approximately 200 of her most significant portraits, "Diane Arbus," a new exhibit opening this Saturday at SFMOMA, is the most comprehensive presentation of her work to date. It's also the first full-scale Arbus retrospective in nearly three decades. (Arbus' daughter, Doon, is notorious for protecting her mother's reputation ever since Diane committed suicide at the age of 48 in 1971; Doon approves reproductions of her mom's photographs only after reading the accompanying text.) The show includes previously unpublished prints as well the images for which Arbus is most famous -- a "Jewish giant" looming over his diminutive parents; a scrawny little boy holding a toy hand grenade in Central Park; and the surprisingly different identical twin girls in New Jersey, wearing dark frocks with white collars and looking alternately disturbed and knowing. Most important, the exhibit should shed some light on Arbus' techniques -- and perhaps on her inner life.

Unlike her subjects, who seemed ready and willing to expose their souls and flaws to her lens, Arbus was surprisingly elusive. She was accused by her detractors of exploiting her subjects -- nudists, midgets, social outcasts, and mentally retarded children among them -- though to be fair, even her portraits of "normal" folks were fraught with the unusual. In A Young Brooklyn Family Going for a Sunday Outing, N.Y.C., for example, the youthful parents appear resigned and overwhelmed, while their children make disturbing faces at the camera.

As the photographer has been quoted as saying, "For me the subject of the picture is always more important than the picture." For some critics, the same held true: The artist became almost more important than her art. She was frequently stereotyped as a tragic figure who let her work get the better of her, but that image is sure to come into question as a more complete portrait begins to emerge with this show. In addition to Revelations, a substantial catalog released in conjunction with the exhibit, a large selection of contact sheets, letters, and journal entries from the artist's personal library is also on display. Most likely, the array will raise more questions than it answers, even with the new documents, but at least Arbus' work will at last be out there for all to see.

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Lisa Hom

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