“In the Beginning” There Was Diane Arbus

Photo: Taxicab driver at the wheel with two passengers, N.Y.C. 1956 © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

The ingénue never fails to intrigue with the distinct blend of innocence, enthusiasm, and idealistic goals. Cynics may call them naïve, but we know better than that. Youth is a period of purity, unburdened by the weight of the world, offering a fresh start to an old trip that all of us take and weary of, but rarely want to quit. But to start again? Most would skip that and leave it to the young of body and mind.

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To revisit an artist’s early works, particularly after their popularity and their demise, is a brilliant way to get to take depth of understanding to the next level. Jeff Rosenheim, Curator in Charge of the Department of Photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, has done just this with American master Diane Arbus (1923–1971).

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

Diane Arbus. Jack Dracula at a bar, New London, Conn. 1961. © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

diane arbus: in the beginning, on view now at the Met Breuer, New York, through November 27, 2016, presents more than 100 photographs from the first seven years of her career. A sumptuous catalogue of the same name is published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and distributed by Yale University Press. The works, made between 1956 and 1962, encapsulate the period when Arbus developed her style and honed her practice. She numbered a roll of 35mm film #1, and went on from there, setting this exact moment in time as her beginning.

Arbus had a singular point of view, one that was easily distinguishable from her contemporaries including Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, Garry Winogrand, and Lee Friedlander. She took no issue in engaging with her subjects, as others had, and created not only remarkable images but memories of a personal encounter the viewer had, but for the images that easily become moments of curious, if not uncanny, reverie.

Diane Arbus. Female impersonator holding long gloves, © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Diane Arbus. Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, L.I., 1959. © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Arbus was a True Yorker: born and bred, lived and died, she made most of her photographs in the city during a time when rents made it possible to be packed to the gills with characters you couldn’t find anywhere else. A trip through Arbus’s archive is like a Cindy Adams quip: “Only in New York, kids.”

And then a strange nostalgia swoops in, one that you would not have felt twenty years ago. This is Old York, a city that was, a place where individuality was a dominating force. And that force beckoned Arbus like nothing else could, and she operated like an urban anthropologist with the tools of her trade at the ready.

Diane Arbus. The Backwards Man in his hotel room, N.Y.C. 1961. © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Diane Arbus. The Backwards Man in his hotel room, N.Y.C. 1961. © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Her notebooks were filled with lists and ideas, which Rosenheim excerpts to show just how in tune she was with the city mid-century. Arbus tapped into the pulse of underground New York and she followed it like a bloodhound, identifying her ilk: “morgue; freaks at home; jewel box reveue; roller derby women; dressing rm; womans prison; weird women; paddy wagon; meat slaughterhouse; tattoo parlor; taxi dance hall-before hrs; lonelyhearts club; Happinesss Exch; lady wrestling; beggars-blind.”

The list goes on, like Arbus herself, making a singular path into the realm of photography that has not been matched—or even rivaled—since. And perhaps this is because of Arbus herself, an artist unlike any other, as evidenced by the profound depth of her early work, which first became available to the Museum in 2007.

Diane Arbus. Man in hat, trunks, socks and shoes, Coney Island, N.Y. 1960. v

Diane Arbus. Man in hat, trunks, socks and shoes, Coney Island, N.Y. 1960. v

In the span of less than a decade, Rosenheim has put together an exhibition and catalogue that is a repository of soul, not only of Arbus herself but of all the people she encountered in her formative years. The result is a tour de force, tender as the night and just as real.


Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.