It's Friday in late August, and I'm at the beautifully Brutalist Breuer building on Madison Avenue; former home of the Whitney, currently the Met Breuer, and site of a past favorite summer Friday for me. I'm finally getting a chance to see the "Diane Arbus: In the Beginning" exhibit which opened a month ago and which features more than 100 images from Arbus' early work (from 1956 - 1962) -- about two-thirds of which have never before been seen publicly. It was only when the archive (including all of Arbus' negatives, 6000 contact sheets, 700 proof prints, 700 final prints, her personal library, all of her notes, and various other photographic items) came to the Met in 2007 by gift and promised gift from Arbus' daughters, Doon and Amy, that the full collection of early work was fully realized and explored, and is now able to be properly appreciated and preserved. The Met has laid the exhibit out as a series of staggered partitions, creating a loose labyrinthine array of early Arbus work. It allows you to explore and discover in your own sequence while eliminating lateral distraction, and is particularly well suited for solo viewing.
(right: Installation view of "Diane Arbus: In the Beginning" at the Met Breuer)
It is evident that Arbus was very much Arbus in the first seven years of her work, with some of her classic themes already emerging or established. One sees the despair of an "Old Woman in a Hospital Bed," and the seeming disaffected blankness of "Jack Dracula at a Bar." There is the grotesque "Corpse with receding hairline and a toe tag, N.Y.C.", and several expressively awkward images of children, such as the classics - "Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park" and "Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey". I personally find amusement in the then literally but ultimately presciently titled "Clown in a Fedora."
What is less immediately evident, but no less real or impressive, is the monumental amount of behind the scenes work that has occurred in advance of the exhibit, that has gone into preparing and analyzing the Arbus archive. Hundreds of hours of this work have been done by the Department of Photograph Conservation at the Met, and it is perhaps the inability to discern their hand in the exhibit that is the best testament to their skill and contribution. I was lucky to be invited to the celebration of the one year anniversary of the formation of this department this past June by leading expert photo conservator and head of the group, Nora Kennedy. The evening's events featured a look into the current work being done by the department, including the analysis of Arbus' process from a technical standpoint, comprised in part of research and analysis into the type of film and paper she used in her work. While the collection at first glance looks uniform in its printing, closer inspection by the conservation team reveals tonal variety in the paper, from tan to pink to blue. In the absence of detailed notes by the photographer herself, the analysis provides insight into the approach that Arbus took to the printing and presentation of her work; into decisions that impacted surface gloss, sheen, color and texture of the images. The variability in Arbus' technical process in these incipient pieces is a sign that much was still be determined and established in her work, and provides early context for her later decisions.
I'm inspired by both the artistry and evocativeness of Diane Arbus' work, and the professionalism and expertise that Nora Kennedy and her team bring to preserving this art form that is as physically vulnerable as it is artistically important. Here's to honoring the lasting achievements of others. Here's Legacy.