Diane Arbus At The Met Breuer

When photographer Diane Arbus cut her own life short at the age of 48, we lost an incomparable talent. One of the most influential photographers of the 20th Century, male or female, Arbus’ high contrast, black and white portraits of eccentric, otherworldly and otherwise marginalized New Yorkers gifted us a new way of seeing. Lucky for us, Arbus was not only a singular talent but also a prolific one. Through the end of this month, at the Met Breuer, more than 100 of the photographer’s previously unseen images will be on view as part of Diane Arbus: In the Beginning.

As the name suggests, the exhibit focuses on the photographer’s early work, as she started to develop and explore her own iconic style. Arbus started off as a fashion photographer, capturing glamorous editorials of glamorous women for the likes of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue for over a decade. But after her husband, Allan, also a successful fashion photographer, gifted Arbus a camera of her own, she begun exploring her own language. It wasn’t long before she walked off the set of Vogue and never looked back; abandoning the world of fashion to pursue the art career she was destined for.

From then on, Arbus wandered the streets of New York City, 35mm Nikon in hand searching relentlessly for anyone she felt was worth photographing. Her subjects ranged from decadent drag queens to middle-class families struggling to survive in New York. Regardless of the subject, there was something dark, humanizing and relatable to all of her images – something that both celebrated our differences and discovered our unlikely commonalities.

For Arbus, photography was just as much about process as product. There was the process of seeking out subjects, be it at Coney Island, the Lower East Side or Hubert’s Dime Museum in Times Square, where she captured participants in the so-called “freak show.” There was also the process of developing the images, experimenting with different techniques, keeping notes and journals and, eventually, editing down her work to the images that made her famous.

Arbus was a relentless cataloguer, and after her suicide in 1971, her family discovered boxes upon boxes of archived materials tucked away in her Manhattan apartment. In 2007, her family gifted these materials to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is why they are just now seeing the light of day, 45 years after the artist’s death.

Today we need Arbus’ unique way of seeing – one that celebrates our differences – more than ever. Whether you’re a die-hard fan of her work or you’re approaching it for the very first time, In the Beginning is a must-visit exhibit and it couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time.

Diane Arbus: In The Beginning will be on show at The Met Breuer until November 27th.

Words by Allyson Shiffman