Diane Arbus in Central Park. Photo: Tod Papageorge, 1967.

Diane Arbus is luminary photographer of the 20th century whose morally layered images have divided critics for years. Arbus had a privileged upper-class upbringing and adult life. Yet, whatever the goal, her creative work often singled out marginalized people and portrayed them as kitsch oddities.

Arbus’s images walk a slippery slope in letting viewers securitize disadvantaged people from a safe distance. The work is designed to invoke emotion, yet it can leave the viewer wondering whether the subject has been humanized, or dehumanized—exploited or empowered. Arbus’s images illuminate the unique power balance between photographers and their subjects—a dichotomy, which remains vexed.

In 1967 a handful of Arbus’s images were featured in an influential exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. That showcase, New Documents, was significant because it marked a turning point in the history of contemporary photography, not yet fully recognized as a legitimate fine-art. A few years later in 1971, she committed suicide.

Nearly half-a-century later, a new retrospective called: Diane Arbus: In the Beginning comes to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s modern art branch, the Met Breuer. Focusing on the first seven years of Arbus’s career, the exhibition features around 100 images taken between 1956 and 1962, two-thirds of which have never been seen by the public.

Exploring the exhibit is reminiscent of moving around New York City, just like Arbus did with her 35mm Nikon SLR and medium format Rolleiflex. Inspired by the design of Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, the installation is set amongst a labyrinth of equidistant one-metre-wide columns, each supporting one of Arbus’s images on either side.

Inside the exhibition: ‘Diane Arbus: In The Beginning’ at the Met Breuer. Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The idea was “to see multiple photographs at once. You can choose any path you want. It’s not chronological”, Deborah Goldberg, art historian and tour guide for the Arbus exhibit, explains as she leads a group through the exhibition.

“This design is not typical for the Met; it’s never been done before. They worked with the design of the building’s architect, Marcel Breuer.”

Born in New York City in I923, Arbus grew up in a sprawling 14-room apartment in the San Remo building, an exclusive co-op on Central Park West. At 18 she married Allan Arbus, whom she’d met five years earlier, as a teenager. A few years later, her father employed the Arbuses to shoot the advertising material for Russek’s, the now defunct Fifth Avenue department store he then owned. Diane came up with the concepts, while Allan operated the camera. Their work at Russek’s precursed a decade-long prolific fashion photography partnership, whose clients included: Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire and Glamour.

By 1956, Diane was tired of handling and dressing models while Allan worked the camera, and even he agreed it was demeaning. Diane, then 33, had grown to hate fashion photography’s superficiality, too. Frustrated, she decided to take some time off and pursue photography independently.

“Once she decided to leave fashion photography, she took a class with Lisette Model at the New School for Social Research”, Goldberg says, as we explore the Arbus exhibition at the Met Breuer.

Model helped define post-war documentary photography in the United States through her teaching. Known for her stark portraits of people on the New York City’s streets, it was under Model’s direction that Arbus found her artistic voice and unmistakable style.

“You can really see Model’s influence in the images that Arbus took,” Goldberg adds.

In the Beginning starts here. It’s 1956 and Arbus has left behind the ‘inauthentic’ fashion work that had, until now, defined her. It is at this point that Arbus begins honing her creative energy towards subject matter that feels more ‘authentic’. And like Model, Arbus was drawn to eccentrics.

Arbus “was looking for people who were different. She went to unusual places to seek out her subject matter.” Goldberg notes. “She was very brave to photograph some of these people that often looked disturbed—and she doesn’t show them in the best light often either,” Goldberg adds. Still, not everyone was convinced of Arbus’s genius—or bravery.

Visual culture critic and essayist, Susan Sontag argued that Arbus did nothing to dignify her subjects. Or even invite viewers to identify with them. “Her work shows people who are pathetic, pitiable, as well as repulsive, but it does not arouse any compassionate feelings”, Sontag wrote in her 1973 essay, Freak ShowFor Sontag, Arbus’s photos were based on distance, privilege and “a feeling at what the viewer is asked to look at is really other.”

Others maintain Arbus was a visionary photographer—a singular and explosive force in the medium. The Metropolitan Museum of Art describes her as “one of the most influential and provocative artists of the 20th century.”

Arthur Lubow, Arbus’s biographer, spent 10-years untangling and examining Arbus’s personal life and work for his book, Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer. A leading expert on Arbus, Lubow’s enthusiasm for her remains undeterred.

“I’ve written many magazine profiles without ever feeling motivated to take the subject to this length [a book]. Diane Arbus was different,” Lubow said.

“I thought her work was utterly compelling. The fact that she was able to express herself so personally with the camera—which is, after all, a mechanical instrument—impressed me enormously,” Lubow adds.

“With Arbus, you are often in a face-to-face encounter with people who were looking at her in the way that they are now regarding you.

“As the MoMA photography curator John Szarkowski—Arbus’s most influential supporter—said to me: ‘People were just as interested in Diane as she was in them.’” Lubow says.

During the exhibit tour, I ask Goldberg if she thinks Arbus’s work was predatory. She acknowledges critics, like Sontag, before reading a quote from her essay Freak Show. However, Goldberg still advocates for Arbus, citing her dedication to cultivating relationships with subjects, which—she says—is evident in the images.

“Most everybody she photographs relates to her and knows that they are being photographed. It’s not like candid photography where she’s hiding”. Arbus “really gained the trust of her subjects”, Goldberg says.

Whatever her motivations, the influential photographer traversed a slippery slope. In the Beginning, reveals that Arbus sometimes visited the city morgue to photograph corpses who could never consent to be photographed.

Left: “Old woman in a hospital bed, N.Y.C. 1958”. Right: “Corpse with a receding hairline and toe tag, N.Y.C. 1959”. Photos: Diane Arbus and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

One image on display depicts an elderly woman on a hospital bed—mouth ajar—looking as though she is about to pass away. It is not reminiscent of the relationships described by Lubow or Goldberg. It’s inconsistencies like these that cast doubt on Arbus’s true intentions.

Whatever their purpose, many of Arbus’s subjects (and the spaces they inhabited) were reduced to garish objects of appraisal. One can only wonder whether her pictures were made for the people they represented—or—intellectuals in the art world to scrutinize over.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art uses dehumanizing nomenclature to describe Arbus’s subjects. “Freaks”; “midgets”; “giants”; male or female “impersonators” appear in image blurbs and other marketing. More thought should be given to how such phraseology may be offensive to these groups.

Left: “Miss Makrina, a Russian midget in her kitchen, N.Y.C. 1959”. Right: “Seated female impersonator in an open kimono, Hempstead, L.I. 1959”. Photos: Diane Arbus and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Does Arbus deserve such praise without equal condemnation? Maybe. Not all of her work feels exploitative. Still, some images are uncomfortable. They appear to be venturing into terrain which can only be described as voyeuristic, stereotypical and reductive.

Arbus was not completely virtuous. She was varied, complicated, and nuanced, like her work. Diane Arbus: In The Beginning is a fascinating landmark exhibition about an important artist—but viewers should tread carefully.