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Diane Arbus and the New Documents Exhibition

In recognition of Women’s History Month, I am highlighting books featuring the work of five great women photographers. This post focuses on the “New Documents” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1967, the first and only major exhibition featuring the work of Diane Arbus. The previous review featured Marion Post Wolcott and Esther Bubley and their photographs for the Farm Security Administration and its successor the Office of War Information.

Arbus • Friedlander • Winogrand – New Documents, 1967

At the end of February, 1967, the Museum of Modern Art in New York unveiled its latest exhibit, New Documents. It featured the work of three photographers who, little known at the time, would become three of the most recognized, significant and influential artists of the 20th Century – Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand.

Although photography had been recognized as a legitimate art since at least the days of Alfred Stieglitz in the first decades of the century, it still fell far short of commanding the financial support and interest of more established media. The entire budget for the exhibition amounted to $3,150 and a handwritten note from Arbus in 1968, while the show was touring the country, indicates the value of a stolen print “should be changed to $75 because that is what they sell for now.”  

With a limited budget, an exhibition catalogue that had been anticipated never materialized. Despite the significance of the show, the exhibit only got a tri-fold brochure.

Fifty years later, the Museum of Modern Art rectified that with Arbus • Friedlander • Winogrand – New Documents, 1967, a 168-page book that not only reproduces the photographs from the exhibition, but includes copies of reviews from the time, planning and exhibition notes and memos from John Szarkowski, the then-director of MOMA’s Department of Photography, sketches, and commentary on the significance of the exhibit and the artists.

It is a significant piece of modern photographic history and once well worth buying for anyone interested in one of the most dynamic and exciting periods of creative photography. With it’s focus on three of the most influential photographers of the latter half of the 20th century, it’s also a great bargain and fine sampler of their early work.

In many respects, Arbus stole the show.

Most reviews devoted far more space to her photographs than to those of Winogrand and Friedlander. Almost certainly because many of her subjects – female impersonators, nudists, transvestites and burlesque performers – were the most provocative. Arbus had a knack for making the ordinary seem freakish and the freakish seem ordinary.

The exhibition was also notable for being the only one of several similar exhibitions of new photographers at the time that included Arbus and was the only major exhibition of her work in her lifetime.

Arbus’ work was controversial at the time and remains so today. Were her pictures exploitative or empathetic? Do they feed into our voyeuristic attraction to societal outcasts or do they encourage us to look beyond the exterior to see the person inside?

America still struggles with the questions raised by Arbus’ photographs. A decade after the Supreme Court effectively legalized same sex marriage, questions surrounding LGBTQ rights in society have reemerged as political flashpoints. In some ways, Arbus’ photographs are more relevant today than they have been at any other time since the 1960s.

The major difference may be that today, many of her subjects are no longer invisible.

In the 1960s, some of those photographed by Arbus had to have known that posing for her for could put themselves at risk. In “Two Young Women, Washington Square Park, N.Y.C.” a couple stand smiling before the camera, both are dressed in dark men’s slacks and white men’s shirts. Their hair is cut short in the style worn by most men of the time. One is at least a full head taller than the other. They stand close together, with the arm of the taller one slung across the shoulder of the shorter woman, she holds a cigarette in her hand and the pose is casually fraternal. Other than the smooth skin of their faces, there is nothing feminine in their looks or pose.

What were they risking by posing for the photographer? Did they really feel that safe and self-assured in 1965 in a public park in New York? At the time same sex relationships were illegal in New York and the historic Stonewall Uprising would not take place until 1969.

Many of her photographs displayed touches of humor. But the humor can feel biting and at times a bit cruel. When Arbus photographed “Girl at home with Souvenir Dog, New Orleans, Louisiana” did her subject know that Arbus was pairing the woman’s own elaborate bouffant hairdo with that of her stuffed toy poodle?

What was Arbus saying when she photographed “Lady with a Briefcase and Plastic Pocketbook, Broadway, NYC”?  The adjective “plastic” seems an odd detail to include about the purse the woman holds. Arbus was the granddaughter of the founder of Russeks, an upscale Manhattan department store. If anyone would know the distinction between a leather handbag and a “plastic” pocketbook it was Diane Arbus. Was there a bit of upper-class snobbery in Arbus’ description of the woman’s purse, or was it a subtle attempt to encourage viewers to feel sympathy for a businesswoman who could only afford an imitation leather purse?

As with so many of her photographs, it’s impossible to sort out. That is a trait of much of Arbus’s work. Arbus herself was not much help here.

It seems clear she had an affection for those who lived on the edge of society. What’s less clear is how she felt about those closer to the mainstream.  

Her fellow New Documents photographer Garry Winogrand has often been quoted as saying he photographed things to see what they look like photographed. Winogrand was famously possessed by his camera. When he died of cancer in 1984, he left behind about 2,500 rolls of undeveloped film, 6,500 rolls of developed but not proofed rolls, and about 3,000 rolls that were had only contact sheets and no images.

Arbus was, in a sense, equally obsessed by her subjects. She made lists of whom and what she wanted to photograph, sometimes intermingled with family chores such as picking up a gift for one of her daughters.

In her 1963 application for a Guggenheim grant, she offered a clue of what she hoped to accomplish. Applying for a grant to photograph “American Rites, Manners and Customs” Arbus wrote that she intended to “photograph the considerable ceremonies of our present.” She listed such items as “the Testimonial Dinner, the Séance, the Gymnasium and the Picnic.”  She wrote, “I want to gather them like somebody’s grandmother putting up preserves.”

Arbus was an admirer of August Sander, the German photographer who set out to compile a collective portrait of the German people in the years before World War II. She studied under pioneering street photographer Lisette Model and hung out with legendary tabloid photographer Weegee. Her lists of subjects and topics were also are reminiscent of those of Roy Stryker, the legendary director the Farm Security Administration’s photography department, who sent photographers across the country during the depression with checklists of subjects to capture.

In his introduction to the New Documents exhibit, John Szarkowski drew a distinction between traditional documentary photography and these “New Documents,” declaring “most of these who were called documentary photographers a generation ago, when the label was new, made their pictures in the service of a social cause.”

These new photographers, he wrote, “directed the documentary approach toward more personal ends. Their aim has been not to reform life, but to know it. Their work betrays a sympathy – almost an affection – for the imperfections and frailties  of society. They like the real world, in spite of its terrors, as the source of all wonder and fascination and value – no less precious for being irrational.”

Szarkowski assessment was generously kind. Of Arbus he wrote, “The portraits of Diane Arbus show that all of us – the most ordinary and the most exotic of us – are on closer scrutiny remarkable. The honesty of her vision is of an order belonging only to those of truly generous spirit.”

By most accounts, Arbus led a troubled personal existence. She once said that on her visits to the family department store she felt like “a princess in some loathsome movie.” If at least one recent biographer is  to be believed her family relationships, especially with her brother, were, shall we say delicately, “complicated.”

On July 26, 1971, Arbus made her last list, writing “Last Supper” in her diary. Her body was found in the bathtub two days later. She died by swallowing barbiturates and cutting her wrists with a razor.

The implication of her Guggenheim grant application seems to be that the very existence of her subjects was enough to make Arbus want to photograph them. But, while her motives remain open for debate a half-century later, what is not debatable is that Diane Arbus remains one of the greatest and most influential photographers of the 20th Century.

New Documents is a belated tribute to Arbus and her colleagues, but it is worth the wait.


Arbus • Friedlander • Winogrand – New Documents 1967 on Amazon

Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph on Amazon

Diane Arbus Revelations on Amazon

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