In Arts + Entertainment

Discover Diane Arbus’ Confronting Portrait Photography

Diane Arbus’ portraits are at once confronting yet strangely intimate. Arbus is one of the most significant photographers of the 20th-century, and the star of Diane Arbus: American Portraits, on view now at Melbourne’s Heide Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition offers the rare chance to check out some of her most iconic work right here in Australia.

The exhibition explores work from the last decade of Arbus’ life, when her legendary style was in full flight. She captured ‘outcasts’, and her work has continually provoked strong reactions. So much so, that in the late 60s, MoMA staff had to frequently wipe spit off her displayed photographs.

Heide presents 35 rare, vintage prints of Arbus’ work on tour from the National Gallery of Australia’s collection, acquired in 1980-81. Prints shown are some of her most well known, including the famous Child with toy hand grenade, in Central Park, New York City.

“This collection covers Arbus’ best-known pictures, and also includes images which are rarely seen. This exhibition is a testament to the power of Arbus’ extraordinary vision,” says curator Anne O’Hehir.

Diane Arbus had a privileged childhood in New York City — one she came to resent, worlds away from the lives of those she came to photograph later. Initially, she ran a commercial studio with her husband, shooting for the likes of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. She grew tired, however, of working with celebrities and fashion. Such photography simply didn’t reflect the real world, but concealed it instead.

At the beginning of Heide’s exhibition, works by photographers she admired are shown. There’s Weegee’s shots of Harlem concerts and Walker Evan’s documentation of farmers from the Great Depression, alongside William Klein’s frenetic New York City scenes. Arbus identified with their uncompromised view of the world — shown just as it was, without sentiment.

In 1956 she left the studio and began to shift her gaze towards the outer fringes of society. Studying under photographer Lisette Model, she was encouraged to find her own voice, with the advice: “don’t shoot ‘till the subject hits you in the pit of your stomach.’”

It’s clear that Model’s influence was profound. Her photographs are compelling and bizarre; they definitely hit you right in the gut.

In A Jewish Giant at Home with his Parents in the Bronx, N.Y. 1970, a giant man towers over his family, almost hitting the top of the frame. Posing in bed, a Mexican dwarf stares directly at you in Mexican Dwarf in his Hotel Room, N.Y.C 1970. In Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967, one girl frowns slightly, the other grins slightly, in an eerie portrait said to inspire the creepy twins in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

Arbus’ characters are anything but ordinary. To find them, she immersed herself in the world of sideshow alleys, seedy hotels, Hubert’s Freak Museum and nudist camps. She gravitated to those at odds with society’s expectations: people with disabilities, poor families, dwarfs, cross dressers, circus performers and eccentric old ladies.

Arbus herself called them “freaks”, spurring controversy and raising uncomfortable questions about her intent. Some viewers believe her portraits reveal empathic understanding, while others see them as exploitative. At Heide, you’re free to come to your own conclusions as you take the portraits in.

Looking at the prints, imperfections are clearly visible: distinctive black borders, blurred edges, and scratch marks as seen in Woman with a beehive hairdo, 1965. These are photographs taken by a particular person, at a particular point in time — and they don’t attempt to conceal the real world. This lack of perfection mirrors her choice of subject matter, too.

Several of the exhibition rooms display work by other American photography heavy hitters. Photographs by Arbus’ contemporaries Garry Winogrand, Milton Rogovin and Lee Friedlander document the social landscape of 1960s America.

In another room, the focus is on the next generation. Candid, rowdy bar scenes by Mary Ellen Mark sit alongside colour snaps of ordinary American lives by William Eggleston. Both artists provide glimpses into those usually unseen, influenced by Arbus’ redefinition of the documentary genre.

“Her uncompromising view challenged existing photography conventions in a surprising and enchanting way,” says Heide director and CEO, Dr Natasha Cica.

For now, there’s the rare chance to view her extraordinary photographs at Heide. It’s well worth the visit to experience Arbus’ impact, and to feel a powerful pull into her surreal world.

Diane Arbus: American Portraits is on show at Heide Museum of Modern Art through June 17.

Published 25 April, 2018