'She allowed the world to talk to her,' curator Jeff L. Rosenheim says. Sometimes these conversations were quiet and sometimes dark, but Arbus’s secret weapon was, undoubtedly, her charisma. In 1962 she switched to a square format camera that didn’t need to be held up to the face, so that she could look her subjects in the eye. Arbus had a talent for psychologically loaded images and there is a touch of the macabre, here too. There’s the 'Wax Museum Axe Murderer, Coney Island, N.Y.,' a recreation of a grisly scene of dismemberment designed to entertain. But there is also a photo of a real corpse in a morgue, its torso split open, presumably after a post mortem. With Arbus, reality and illusion are so often blurred.
(Detail) Diane Arbus. Jack Dracula at a bar, New London, Conn. 196. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York/ Copyright © The Estate of Diane Arbus
The faces that fill the images in this exhibition are both ordinary and extraordinary. There is glamour as a well as horror and with titles like 'The Man Who Swallows Razor Blades', 'The Backwards Man in His Hotel Room' and 'The Human Pincushion', it’s easy to see why Arbus’s photographs have achieved such notoriety. Her most familiar works are here, such as the gurning boy in Central Park, holding a toy hand grenade, and the Jewish giant stooped in the living room of his parents’ house. There’s also that famous photograph of the twin girls, who look as though they have been lifted straight from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. But many images will be new, even to those familiar with Arbus’s work. In fact, two thirds of these photos have never been exhibited before in the UK.
(Detail) Stripper with bare breasts sitting in her dressing room, Atlantic City, N.J. 1961. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Copyright © The Estate of Diane Arbus
Arbus is known for photographing those who existed on the fringes. She captured sideshows and circus acts, drag queens and contortionists, but treated them no differently from the nanny walking through Central Park with her charge, or a young boy stepping off the curb. Through her magic lens, all life takes on a wonderfully strange aura. And behind each image is an untold story, introduced, but not elucidated. We are only afforded a teasing glimpse of these epic lives and are left to wonder, for example, about the five boys wearing masks and the particulars of their 'Monster Fan Club', or how the smiling young man on the Coney Island boardwalk spent his night.
These images will stay with you. Some are grisly, others touching and defiant. They celebrate difference and commonality, relationships and loneliness, and they are saturated with secrets. All of life is here, waiting to be seen.
|Diane Arbus: in the beginning, Hayward Gallery
|Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London, SE1 8XX | MAP
13 Feb 19 – 06 May 19, 11:00 AM – 7:00 PM
|£12.50 - £15.50
|Click here for more information and to book