Louisiana presented the first large-scale retrospective in Scandinavia of legendary American photographer Diane Arbus. In a career that lasted little more than fifteen years, Arbus produced a body of work whose style and content have secured her a place as one of the most significant artists of the 20th century. The direct, even confrontational, gaze of the individuals in her photographs remains bracing to our eyes still today – provoking recognition, empathy and unease.
The range of humanity
The striking black and white photographs of American photographer Diane Arbus (1923–1971) revolutionized portraiture, through their range of subjects and their style. Primarily made in and around New York City, Arbus selected her subjects – including couples, children, nudists, suburban families, circus performers, and celebrities, among others – for their singularity.
“I would like to photograph everybody,” she declared in a letter to a friend in 1960. Arbus aimed to describe, in vivid detail, a range of human difference, at a moment when visual culture strove instead to emphasize uniformity.
Photo: Diane Arbus, Puerto Rican woman with a beauty mark, N.Y.C., 1965. Gelatin silver print, sheet: 50.8 x 40.6 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario. Gift of Phil Lind, 2016. Copyright © Estate of Diane Arbus.
An artist's evolution
Highlighting her evolution as an artist over fifteen years, the exhibition 'Diane Arbus: Photographs, 1956–1971' featured 150 photographs, drawn from the Art Gallery of Ontario’s collection and represented the full chronological arc of Arbus’s work.
From the early, intimate 35mm format prints to the sharply focused square format she embraced after 1962, these photographs allowed us to trace the artist’s evolving vision as part of a changing social landscape. While early works reveal an artist gripped by the range of humanity and life as it unfolded on the street, the later works - created using a larger format - mark her emergence as a mature and compelling artist.
Photo: Diane Arbus, Teenage couple on Hudson Street, N.Y.C., 1963. Gelatin silver print, sheet: 50.8 x 40.6 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario. Gift of Robin and David Young, 2016. Copyright © Estate of Diane Arbus.
Photo: Diane Arbus, Three female impersonators, N.Y.C., 1962. Gelatin silver print, sheet: 35.6 x 27.9 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario. Anonymous gift, 2016. Copyright © Estate of Diane Arbus.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Born in 1923, Diane Arbus grew up in an affluent New York family that owned a department store on Fifth Avenue. At age 18 in 1941 she married Allan Arbus and for a decade the couple worked together – he as photographer, she as stylist, producing photographs for fashion magazines. Although she started making pictures for herself in the early 1940s, it was only in 1956, when she numbered a roll of film #1, that she began seriously pursuing the work for which she has come to be known.
During the 1960’s she published more than 100 photographs in leading magazines like Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar. Arbus was awarded Guggenheim Fellowships in 1963 and 1966 for her project, “American Rites, Manners and Customs”. The photographs she produced in those years attracted a great deal of critical and popular attention when a group was selected for the legendary 1967 New Documents show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
When she died by suicide in 1971, she was already something of a legend among serious photographers, although only a relatively small number of her most important pictures were widely known. A broader recognition of her work, however, soon emerged. In 1972, Arbus became the first photographer to be included in the Venice Biennale, where her photographs were acknowledged as “the overwhelming sensation of the American Pavilion” and “extremely powerful and very strange”. The first major retrospective of Arbus’ work was held in 1972 at MoMA, garnering the highest attendance of any exhibition in the museum’s history to date.