Diane Arbus the Spider

Portions of the Diane Arbus exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum today were so packed that they smelled like a lockerroom. Particularly so were two otherwise absorbing alcoves used to showcase Arbus’ notebooks, personal book collection and cameras. It was interesting seeing her evolution from a 35mm Nikon to Rollei and Mamiya twin lens reflex cameras, which she believed allowed her to get closer to her subjects. The exhibit’s journal excerpts give good insight into Arbus’ aesthetics. Though Arbus is maybe best known for her images of "freaks," she also had a well-honed ability to capture the essence of the people she came upon while traipsing around her native New York. Joel Meyerowitz recalls:

[She] was the spider. You
could see how she got into people’s lives. She was genuinely interested
in them, and they became entranced by her, enamored of her. She had
what would be called, in sixties parlance, good vibes – an aura,
charisma, something that emanated from her. If she was next to
somebody, near somebody, and she wanted to photograph them, she would
send out her interest. It was as if a bloom would just open up, and
they would see her, and she would say something to them in hardly an
audible way, and they would listen. Because if someone speaks low
enough, people listen. There was a kind of incantation in her whisper,
and people would go limp.

Most photography aficionados, for instance, know "Child with a Toy Hand Grenade" (in which she perfectly captures a boy’s anger at seeing Arbus take his photograph) and "Teenage Couple on Hudson Street" (in which the youth of the couple is only heightened by their oversized coats and wish to look grownup).

I learned a lot from studying Neil Selkirk’s prints of the Arbus images: where he chose to burn and dodge them. (Selkirk is the only person authorized by Arbus’ heirs to print her images since her suicide in 1971. After she separated from husband Allan Arbus, she did all her own printing.) The traveling exhibit originated at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the catalog is available from Random House.

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