Diane Arbus………In The Beginning Hayward Gallery exhibition review

Just like buses, you wait ages for my blog, and then two come at once!

Last weekend, I headed down to the Hayward Gallery in London, to catch the Diane Arbus exhibition……In The Beginning, before it closes.

Exhibiting over 100 photographs, many previously unseen in Europe, I just wanted to share some thoughts and impressions of my visit.

Arbus, was an American photographer known for her hand held black & white images, shot using a  medium format camera, predominantly on the streets of New York City and Coney Island from 1956. Arbus, became and remains one of the most unique post-modern American photographers. Arbus, often focused on the marginalised groups in our society such as circus performers, midgets, transgender as well as more normalised subjects of suburban families, celebrities and nudists. Through her work Arbus, elevated the art of documentary and street photography, inspiring photographers for generations and is a staple on any photography student’s curriculum.

Born in 1923, Arbus grew up in New York City to a high society wealthy Jewish family. It has been said that Arbus spent the rest of her life trying to separate herself from her family and upbringing, there has been much speculation that her work is an extension of her personal suffering, ending with suicide in 1971 aged 48. Arbus only took photography seriously in the last 15 years of her life and found fame in the last nine. It has been speculated that her upbringing and the sense of oppression felt from her own community, led Arbus to feel akin to her subjects as social outcasts. Equally, critics have slandered Arbus as simply viewing her subjects from a position of privilege and provocation.

There is much written on Arbus’s work, with many critics, theorists and philosophers intellectualising over questions of morality, voyeurism, compassion and the complex psychological effect raised in the viewer by her art.

For me, seeing her work for the first time in the flesh, with much of the exhibition focusing on the first seven years of her photographic career, I was struck not by her most iconic images, although incredible, but by her lesser known pieces, many in which, her subjects were out of focus or were of shots of a film scene from a TV screen, or of just ordinary items, but yet all managing to capture, document and construct a narrative of 1950/60’s New York and America illustrating a time of cultural change.

On reflection, to me, Arbus’s photography is often less about technique and more about concept and the principles that drove her as a photographer, they are apparent and evident in her work and as a photographer reminds me of what I should strive for to continue developing my craft.

Arbus, throughout her career allowed herself to remain curious, which drove her to look for and discover new and interesting places to experience and photograph.

Arbus understood that her camera, was not something to be embarrassed about, but is a license to enter the lives of others. The camera is a reason for engagement, which people respond to and as Arbus did with many of her subject formed the basis of long term relationships, as she said  “For me the subject of a picture is always more important than the picture. And more complicated”.

Arbus selected her subjects by what compelled and excited her, Arbus was drawn to ‘freaks’, who she claimed to have mixed feelings over, that of shame and awe.  It is Arbus’s excitement and curiosity that spawns passion in her pictures depicting a respectful, humanist and compassionate insight into her alienated subject’s lives.

Arbus understood that even with street photography, specific photographs could be created, and being specific only helps makes the message stronger. As photographers, we need to be selective, there needs to be a reason to take the photograph and that in turn will give more meaning to the viewer.

Although one can never truly understand the world from your subject’s eyes, as a photographer it is easy to see things from your own perspective. From her work, it is clear that Arbus worked hard to tell the story from the subject’s perspective. Arbus claimed: “I work from awkwardness. By that I mean I don’t like to arrange things. If I stand in front of something, instead of arranging it, I arrange myself.”

As mentioned, many of Arbus’s images were not perfect, “I have never taken a picture I’ve intended. They’re always better or worse,” she said. Art is not always a reflection of the best or most perfect image and seeing Arbus’s work was a reminder that perfection is illusive and often futile. To strive to make it better should be the goal and that taking a bad picture is just part of the process.

Diane Arbus followed her heart and mantra in her photography: “shoot for secrets, develop for surprises.”

Diane Arbus…….In the Beginning, Closing 6th May 2019. Hayward Gallery, London.