Diane Arbus at the Hayward Gallery: ‘a lesson in quietude’

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There is very little that one can say about Diane Arbus’ photographs that hasn’t been said before. The adjectives that immediately spring to mind – strange, curious, bizarre, extraordinary, careful, loving, intimate – offer no fresh insight, all seem well-rehearsed and dusty. Yet curiously, for work so silent and an artist so reticent, we can’t seem to stop talking about her, and her work has so saturated contemporary photography that its influence is visible in almost every artist, at every corner.


The work presented is wild and varied

Fortunately, the Hayward Gallery’s latest exhibition titled ‘Diane Arbus: In the beginning’ avoids piling onto the mountain of words already proffered about Arbus. It reflects the silence of her images, organising the exhibition without consideration of chronology, criticism or curation. There is no route around the images, which are pasted onto tall pillars that are themselves organised without any clear intention or narrative. Visitors are told to ‘follow any path they choose as there are only beginnings – no middle and probably no end’. Ignoring the slightly cringing mystery-rhetoric, this sentiment seems to capture most profoundly the exhibition’s distanced approach to Arbus’ work, allowing it to speak without the embellishment of academia and institutions.

The work presented is wild and varied. The bulk of the exhibition is made up of the photos of Coney island freaks and the street dwellers of 1950’s New York that Arbus is famous for. Speckled throughout are more private, static shots of cinema screens, the 1950’s equivalent of screenshots, showing ‘woman about to be kissed’ or cartoon characters with kitschy smiles and arrows jammed into their skulls.The juxtaposition of the banal, the manufactured, the bizarre and the extreme creates an overarching portrait not only of a time – 1950’s New York – throbbing with possibility and experimentation, but of an eye that caught all curiosities, all personalities.

What Arbus’ eye seems to fall on most is performance, the way in which individuals present to the world, and it is this that makes her images so compelling. In their quiet dynamism they capture with real candour the presentation of self to the world in a way that would be impossible today. We are all too aware of our own constant performance to the world, on our phones or in person, that the way in which Arbus’ subjects react to her camera – scowling, contorted, elated or quiet – is a foreign instinct to us now. We know only how to smile or grin, even when it is masked as unexpected we are always aware of performing to the world in a way that our ancestors were not. Just take street photography now as comparison, characterised as it is by a circus of peacocking and poses.

It is a lesson in stepping back and observing what is around us

The silence of Arbus work is refreshing and meditative. The sub-dermal exploration of the subjects exposed in her photographs prompts real emotional reflection and resonance that is often difficult to provoke in photography. Though the Hayward Gallery’s exhibition relies entirely on the magic of Arbus’ images for its success, it truly allows her work to breathe, to signal quietly to the spectator, to engage without adornment. It is a lesson in stepping back, and observing what is around us, both firsthand in the magnificent curiosity of the street that Arbus captured, or secondhand in a more fresh, clear-eyed appreciation of art.

Diane Arbus: In the beginning is on at the Hayward Gallery in London until the 6th May.

Image; ‘A Young Man in Curlers at Home on West 20th Street, NYC 1966’ by Diane Arbus, courtesey of Jessica Epstein via Flickr and Creative Commons

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