Diane Arbus’ in the beginning exhibit: Intimacy, Moments & the Range of Human Emotion
We look at photographs and briefly escape our realities to transcend into the realities we see before us. We attempt to understand, rationalize and solve everything we can about a photograph just by looking at it: the feelings and emotions, the setting, the mood, and the context. Perhaps photographer Diane Arbus was right when she said “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know“, because the more we look at Arbus’ photographs specifically, the less we know; but, maybe that’s the point she is trying to convey — that we don’t need to know everything about her photographs or try to. Instead, we should merely revel in the complete honesty, simplicity and beauty of the moment that she has captured and appreciate it as it is. For these same moments are always happening around us but we just need to open our eyes and look.
The diane arbus: in the beginning photo exhibit in the Met Breuer is presented as dozens of tall grey columns, arranged together into alternating rows that closely resemble the appearance of ‘trees in a forest’. There is one photograph on each side of a column and the columns stretch all the way up from the floor to the ceiling. In a more abstract way, the columns themselves reflect the people in Arbus’ photographs — how each person is living their own life with their own emotions and with their own moments (represented as one column) — and how close all these people are in proximity to one another, reflective in how close the columns are arranged. So, what Arbus presents as a collection of different people living their respective moments, is really a unified collection of people co-existing in their moments side-by-side with another.
When we observe and reflect on each photograph that Arbus has captured, we can’t help but think about other people: their lives, their feelings, their emotions and their stories. With Arbus’ photos in her in the beginning series, each photo is its ‘own little world’, portraying everyday people doing everyday things and the wide-range of human emotion that encapsulates each of those ‘things’. We often forget that there are other people around us, living their own lives apart from ours. When we come face-to-face with a Diane Arbus photograph in this collection, we are struck not only by the subject’s honesty but also by the intimacy that Arbus creates between us and the subject; as a result, we experience their emotions right there and then with them. We, the viewers, start to become a part of the photo momentarily, being rooted with Arbus and the subject in a brief moment in time. In “young man with a paper bag at night, Coney Island NY 1957”, the young man conveys goofiness and trickery and as viewers, we feel youthful and jubilant looking at him; on the other hand, the embarrassment and confusion portrayed in “kid in Black Face from NYC, 1957” leave us feeling both pity for the young boy and frustration towards him for doing the blackface to begin with.
In “young man with a paper bag at night, Coney Island NY 1957”, the young man grins foolishly — a lopsided smile of sorts —with half-lidded eyes (that make him look ‘high’) as he clutches a brown paper bag presumably filled with food. Shooting at a straight angle, Arbus accentuates the beaming lights of Coney Island behind the man as they rival his own beaming smile; he is in the center of the nightlife and he is loving it. The Coney Island background of the photograph is also in-motion but somewhat blurred; it’s merely an additional touch to the young man, providing a setting for him to convey his emotion and his being to us. He holds the paper bag pressed against the left side of his body with his right arm propped up against his head. His facial expressions, the goofy grin and half-shut eyes, portray him as a carefree individual with open exuberance — he’s someone who’s ready to get ‘lost’ in Coney Island that night. Through the way that she angles the photo and through the close proximity she has with the young man, Arbus carves a way for us viewers to become a part of this moment. She allows us to feel a connection with the young man, letting his excitement pass through the photograph to us.
While the previous photograph creates a sense of youthful rebellion and excitement, “kid in Black Face from NYC, 1957” reflects childhood wrongdoings and childhood mistakes. It is taken at an angle above the boy, probably because Arbus was taller than the young white child; however, Arbus may have done that purposefully, as it allowed her to create an almost parental role for herself and the viewer to take on in looking ‘down’ at this young boy. The angle of the photo establishes an intimate link between us and the boy as he appears to react to the viewer looking at him and scolding him for the blackface. His expression is one of shame and fear and his clenched fists may further represent a natural defensive reflex of protecting himself against this stranger (Arbus) taking his photo. His shoulders are slouched; someone else’s hand lies on top of his left shoulder, but we are never given a face to this hand so we would presume it belongs to another child. The young boy peers at the camera, from underneath his hair, with big, doe-like eyes. The setting of the dull, grey street in the middle of daylight contrasts with both his outfit and the blackface. By angling her camera above the young boy, Arbus is able to play on his defensive and scared body language and thereby lets him convey his guilt directly to us. Similarly, she uses the contrast between the natural daylight on the bleak grey-street and the stark blackface on the boy to further highlight his humiliation. We are consequently left feeling an emotional response to this young boy, and so we experience a transition from viewer of this moment to participant of this moment instead.
As a street photographer in this particular series, Diane Arbus captured a plethora of people — from the aforementioned young grinning man to the small and shy schoolgirls, and to the curious little boys with hand grenades to the euphoric young women. Even an upscale Fifth Avenue women with her ‘mink coat’ wasn’t immune to Arbus’ camera, as it captured her on the sidewalk of Fifth Avenue on a gloomy afternoon in 1956 (“Woman with white gloves and pocketbook, NYC 1956”). There is quite some distance between Arbus and the subject, who is off to the left of the photograph, staring to her left with a distant look on her face. She clutches her purse close to her body and her black coat clashes with the grey, and rather dull, scene around her. By angling the woman off to the left in this photo, Arbus creates a huge area of negative space on the right-hand side instead; this emphasizes the sidewalk so it now appears longer, wider, and bigger. The older woman looks smaller and somewhat lost in comparison to the ‘big’ city street besides her. Despite the distance between Arbus and the older woman here, this photo still maintains the signature theme of intimacy that Arbus displays throughout the entire collection. She uses her photographic techniques to capture and strongly underline the woman’s presence amongst New York City streets. Through the way Arbus angles this photo and through the way she plays with space and distance, natural lighting and positioning, this photo feels like a small, tiny moment frozen in time. Arbus herself once said, “I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn't photograph them”, and one can’t help but wonder if they would have ever really seen a moment like this otherwise. The photo appears as a split-second-like capture and thus feels so intricately personal and private. We are briefly present for this moment, taking in this entire scene and this older woman, before it's quickly gone and Arbus has moved on.
While Arbus’ photographs can be explored more intricately and analytically, she urged viewers to just see them as is and refrain from searching for secrets all the time. Arbus’ titles for her photographs in this collection reflect this ‘simplistic’ approach, for they are not elusive nor poetic. The titles are to-the-point and reflect what the photograph depicts; and, whether or not it was intentional, the titles further reflect the normalcy and mundaneness of Arbus subjects and what she has captured. These were everyday and average people that Arbus took photos of — people she found on the streets of New York City at varying times, days and settings. For example, a photo of a young blonde boy stepping off a curb is appropriately titled “Boy stepping off a curb, NYC 1957-58”, and a photo of a young boy hiding behind a taller figure, aiming a toy gun towards Arbus’ direction is titled “kid in a hooded jacket, aiming a gun, NYC 1957”. These 'to-the-point' titles are what allow Arbus to convey the simplicity of her photos, and the fact that these are real people living their lives the way they want to. She is merely capturing them in a moment of their time and not hers. It is not abstract, it is not hidden, it is what it is.
In essence, she does not exist in these photographs. Rather, she is capturing the subject existing all on their own. Arbus rarely gives a name to her subjects, as most are referred to as “woman”, “boy”, “girl”, “kid”, and “young man” in her titles. While this doesn’t exactly further the sense of intimacy that we get from just looking at her photos, this does show how human emotion is universal and ever-changing. Through these simple titles, Arbus shows how little boys can be silly and foolish with toy guns (“kid in a hooded jacket, aiming a gun, NYC 1957”) while elder women can be proper and prim in their mink coats and white gloves on Fifth Avenue (“Woman with white gloves and pocketbook, NYC 1956”).
Perhaps the simplest yet most profoundly moving and captivating of photographs in this series is “blurry woman gazing up smiling, NYC 1957”. The photograph is so simple and so pure as we observe a young woman staring up, mouth agape, at something or someone that we probably will never know. The background is entirely pitch black and light only appears in certain parts of the photograph to highlight the young woman’s existence: a small orb of light appears to the left and behind the young woman, and small areas of light bounce off her cheeks, her teeth, her earrings and some portions of her dress. She seems euphoric, elated, and effervescent.
The photograph itself is a bit blurred, but even though it’s blurred (which effectively captures the movement of her body and head as a result), the photograph also feels very still. We sense movement and excitement through the blurriness and emotion, but with the way Arbus captures it, the moment feels so genuine and still, and as a result so beautiful, pure and innocent. Because of how close the subject appears, it furthers adds to this intimacy that Arbus instills within her photographs in this collection. We feel as if we’re part of this moment with the young women, witnessing her joy right then and there. Though not all of Arbus’ subjects appear this close and many may have been aware of her presence, the subject’s knowledge (or lack thereof) of Arbus and the camera does not seem to take away from that closeness, and if anything, strengthens it. While this moment and the young woman’s emotions at the time were evanescent, Arbus was able to capture them in a way that lets both last forever.
Given how many of Arbus’ photos were taken in New York City — population of millions — it’s striking to see one person be highlighted amongst those millions. Much like the “blurry woman gazing up smiling”, the photograph “girl in profile looking up, NYC 1956” too conveys the emotions of hopefulness and possibility; it’s as if the side profile of this young girl mimics the full-frontal picture of the young woman. The young girl is staring up at something in front of her, but we only see her right-side profile of her; behind her are glimmering lights and moving cars, but once again (and expected), they are all blurred. Both of these girls are staring up at something that we don’t know, and even though we don’t know what it is and we don’t have to, as Arbus would say, we still feel drawn to these girls and feel as if we’ve entered their personal space and can share in that moment with them. Right now, there are millions of people all around us, leading their separate lives. Yet in seconds, no matter where we’re looking or what we’re doing, our stories and our worlds can merge with someone else’s instantly.
Suddenly, our moments, emotions, and stories can be shared with them and become part of their moments, emotions and stories too.
It seems that Arbus knew this better than anyone else.