Essay

A Young Person Recommends... Diane Arbus: In the Beginning

Diane Arbus was a famed American photographer from the 1950s until her sad passing in 1971. Her main work focusing on street photography, specifically that of people, began in 1956 as detailed in this exhibition at the Hayward gallery. The gallery revolves around the first seven years of her career, which was based solely in New York and its surrounding areas.

The exhibition itself is split primarily into two rooms, one of which is partially divided. The photos are evenly spaced on large pillars which enables a large number of over 100 photographs to be displayed in a relatively confined space without any feeling of excessive cramp. The exhibition can be observed in any order and lacks a linear chronology. This further helps demonstrates the points her photos make about the variety of life, and how they are all interspersed with one another.

This concept of different types of people is the heart of the whole exhibition, standing at the core of each and every photo in some way. This leads to some quite powerful juxtaposition, as whilst there are some quite striking photos such as The Man who Swallows Razor Blades (1957) it is contrasted by more conservative ones such as Girl in profile looking up (1956) which are far more modest. Arbus is not merely making a point about the more liberal and extreme ends of society such as circus performers, but also the much more mundane aspects such as the businessmen of the city as well. Sometimes this contrast is not just between photos but within them too. Santa Claus on the street with a lady passing (1956) is a prime example with the more outlandish Santa Claus contrasted with a completely nonchalant woman passing by. Her choice of New York, her hometown, for the exhibition is especially fascinating. New York was a very progressive city in the 50s, with all walks of life, and she was pushing this boundary even further through her showcasing of these people.

Another interesting theme of Arbus’ work is one of allusion compared to reality. This trend is most evident in her work in 1958, which showed a focus on cinema, crossdressers and wax figurines. These all present the idea of masquerading oneself which once again comments on the social progression of New York. Arbus, whilst drawing attention to it also normalises it. Photos like Miss Stormé de Laverne, the lady who appears to be a gentlemen (1961) would be hard to identify as such without the title, showing the insignificance of the matter from a wider perspective.

Arbus’ work is well worth a visit, as it evokes quite passionate feelings of both shock and fascination simultaneously. Some of the photos are rather graphic, but serve their purpose as they were made to surprise. Despite not being presented in chronological order, one can also nonetheless observe as Arbus transitions from mere street photography to more posed shots. The exhibitions continues until the sixth of May, and if you are near to the Hayward gallery anytime by then, I highly recommend it.

- Rory Bishop