Arbus the Confessor

Although short, Diane Arbus' late career yielded plenty of iconic images. SFMOMA's exhibit on her early work shows how the brilliant photographer got there.

When SFMOMA officially reopened its doors last year, curators referred to the museum’s new Diane Arbus gallery as “a chapel,” a description that captured both the room’s relatively small dimensions and the kind of quasi-religious intensity of Arbus’ work. Arbus’ religion was communing with strangers — often in the street, but just as often in the privacy of their homes. People invited her in essentially to confess, not just to Arbus but to her lens.

Many of Arbus’ best-known photos — of a young man in curlers (1966), of twin girls side by side (1967), and of a hulking Jewish son in his parents’ house (1970) — are from the last five years of her life, which ended with her 1971 suicide. And SFMOMA has populated its Arbus gallery with images of developmentally disabled campers that Arbus took in 1970 and 1971. But now comes “diane arbus: in the beginning,” an SFMOMA exhibit that explores Arbus’ work from 1956 to 1962, when she was establishing her way of seeing the world.

By photographing fire-eaters, cross-dressers, fighting couples, awkward society matrons, and the like, Arbus went for the dissonance — the beauty of dissonance — that the culture usually ignored or marginalized. The people whom Arbus sought out in 1956, the year she ventured into the street after quitting the fashion-photography business she had with her husband, are pretty much the same people she gravitated toward in later years. But Arbus’ photographic relationship with them seems much less intimate than it was with those she found further on in her career. As its title suggests, the older woman in Woman on the street with her eyes closed, N.Y.C. 1956 didn’t even look at Arbus. Maybe she wouldn’t look, even though she was inches from Arbus’ camera. By not giving in, the woman gave Arbus what Arbus apparently wanted: awkwardness.

Instead of having to make people look good, as she did in the fashion world, Arbus was free to do what she wanted. She was liberated from her privileged upbringing and free of her photographic partnership with Allan Arbus, from whom she would soon separate. Roaming New York and New Jersey, she could take a simple picture of wet streets (Puddle on the sidewalk, N.Y.C. 1957), a boy shooting his toy weapon at her (Kid in a hooded jacket aiming a gun, N.Y.C. 1957), and an odd man with face paint (Clown in a fedora, Palisades Park, N.J. 1957).

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which holds Arbus’ archive — including 6,200 rolls of black-and-white film, contact sheets, film sleeves, appointment books, letters, and other items — organized “diane arbus: in the beginning.” Many of the exhibit’s more than 100 images had never been shown publicly before last year’s Met debut. Organizers added another key layer: Displaying the work of other street photographers who influenced Arbus or were her contemporaries. We see how Arbus changed photography not in isolation but in conjunction with others like Lisette Model, August Sander, and Lee Friedlander. But Arbus had two things these other artists didn’t, argues Jeff L. Rosenheim, the Met’s Curator in Charge and the exhibit’s main organizer. She possessed the courage to openly take her subjects’ images — to be with them — and an intensity that drew people to her personality and made them react in unique ways. This is what Arbus greatly refined between 1956 and 1962.

“There is a performative relationship between her and her subjects,” Rosenheim told journalists before the exhibit’s Jan. 21 opening. “Arbus wanted a direct, one-onone, centered relationship with her subjects. That is both psychological strategy and picture style coming together in one.… You can see, when you look at the negatives and the rolls of film, that she is being looked at as much as she is looking.”

In the accompanying book, Rosenheim writes that Arbus projected philosophical tenets onto her subjects, as with the surreal contortionist who could twist half his body around. “[He] is a metaphor for human destiny — walking blind into the future with an eye on the past,” Arbus noted in her journal about The Backwards Man in his hotel room, N.Y.C. 1961. Rosenheim cites an Arbus essay about Plato from the time she was 16, in 1939, in which she opined that she sees “the divineness in ordinary things.”

With each new Arbus exhibit — nearly one every new year, it seems — comes new scholarship and new revelations, confirmations, or theories of her motivations. Last year, in the book Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer, Arthur Lubow reported that Arbus likely had intimate relations with her brother, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Howard Nemerov. In the 2015 book, Silent Dialogues: Diane Arbus and Howard Nemerov, published by San Francisco’s Fraenkel Gallery, Alexander Nemerov — Chair of Stanford University’s Art & Art History Department, and Howard Nemerov’s son — writes that his father rarely talked about Arbus.

Arbus gave her brother a signed copy of a famous image, Identical twins, Roselle, N.J. 1966, which Howard Nemerov “never matted, never framed, and never even displayed,” the younger Nemerov writes. “Instead, it was kept in a drawer in the living room of our house, mingled among my childhood drawing supplies, the sheets of paper and colored pens.” In fact, Howard Nemerov had contempt for photography, and “especially disliked his sister’s photography,” Alexander Nemerov writes.

Still, while Arbus was a “mystery” to Howard Nemerov, her brother adored paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Elder that resembled Arbus’ work. And while Arbus’ images of “freaks” might have made her brother uncomfortable, their allegorical qualities were fascinating to him. (On Saturday, Feb. 4, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m at San Francisco’s Minnesota Street Project, Alexander Nemerov will talk about the images Arbus took at mental asylums from 1969 to 1971, and how they relate to Howard Nemerov’s poems.)

“For me,” Arbus once said, “the subject of the picture is always more important than the picture. And more complicated.”

That “complicatedness” applies to Arbus herself, of course. Everything changed for her after 1962, when she switched from her 35-millimeter camera to the square format that became one of her trademarks. In 1963, Arbus won a Guggenheim fellowship. And in 1967, the Museum of Modern Art exhibited Arbus’ work alongside that of Friedlander and Garry Winogrand, both of whom shared Arbus’ penchant for taking notable street images. The Arbus we see at SFMOMA is the Arbus that existed before she was famous — before other photographers, like Winogrand, were taking her photo while she was working. The gaze that Arbus had directed at others was, in her last years, directed at her. She was no longer an anonymous photographer, but “Diane Arbus.”

Her suicide at age 48 — a premature death like that of Marilyn Monroe — helped catapult her work into the mainstream. That’s one of Arbus’ legacies: She changed how people see the world, and helped normalize a photography aesthetic that is now commonplace.

“She was interested in myth, she was interested in psychological states of being,” Rosenheim says. “She was interested in asking questions: How do we become the person we want to be? How do we overcome our inherited genetics and our class and the color of our skin to be who we want to be? Those questions, those existential questions, are at the core of her work and the core of what this exhibition is exploring.”

Jonathan Curiel has covered art and culture for SF Weekly since 2010.

diane arbus: in the beginning,” through April 30 at SFMOMA, 151 Third St., $19-$25. 415-357-4000 or

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