In The Beginning / Diane Arbus/Hayward Gallery

It’s really terrific, London’s South Bank. The lines and textures of those cool concrete greys; the monumental and imposing Brutalist architecture that manages to be both simultaneously ancient and 1950s sci fi British vision of the future?  Or maybe it’s just the shear absurd weightiness of the place with its giddy gravitational pull of Culture.  Either way, I’m here to see the Dianne Arbus  exhibition at the Hayward Gallery titled: in the beginning and  featuring over a 100, mostly vintage, prints made by the Dianne Arbus herself. It’s a show that I wouldn’t want to miss.

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The exhibition itself occupies the upper gallery and the paragraph on the white wall at the top of the stairwell provides visitors with a brief introduction to her work and the exhibition. What sticks in my mind is the bit that says “From the start Arbus saw the street as a place full of secrets waiting to be fathomed.”  Growing up in New York, and coming from a wealthy well-protected world, the streets of Manhattan and beyond must have been  places of familiarity and forbidden intrigue.

AAAInstallation view of diane arbus: in the beginning at Hayward Gallery, 2019. Photo: Mark Blower

The images from 1957 to 1962 are simply framed and captioned, relatively small maybe (no larger than A4 in size) and are displayed on a grid of white rectangular pillars front and back.  There’s no chronological order to this part of the exhibition, which is actually quite refreshing for an artist of this magnitude, so no need to be guided from pillar to pillar to postscript. Nevertheless, the temptation is to impose some sort structured way to navigate this open labyrinth.  Any attempt to move in such an orderly fashion falls apart by the time you reach the third photograph as you find yourself intrigued by the picture in another row, then another, then another… Maybe as an adult breaking away from the confines of her childhood, this is how Arbus navigated her way through New York and its people. Moving from one location/person to another, from photographing the interior of a movie theatre and its audience or a close up portrait of  a tattooed man to a meat market to photograph  a  pig hanging on a meat hook  or a bunch of kids wearing monster masks . It’s all very tangible this moving from one thing to another.

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Jack Dracula at a bar, New London, Conn. 1961 Copyright © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC.

Arbus  had the ability to cut across societal divides, shifting between the unique and the seemingly mundane but never dull.  Back in the gallery a photograph of film star Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula appears on a TV screen as series of  black and white lines, whilst  elsewhere a barely recognisable wax work of James Dean stands in a curtained booth. What they have in common is the notion of a life that is absent of life, such stars are reduced in stature. Here the unknown and unseen are the ones who very much alive, the female and male impersonators, the unspoken faces and facets of the street a world away from her own upbringing, yet physically so  near. Her creative  process of seeing and being seen is perhaps  best captured in her images of  children, often in mid thought,  a kid about to cross the road, another in a crowd on the shoulders of an adult , a kid in black face  or young kid in a hooded jacket pointing a toy gun ,all looking directly at the  camera ,at  Diane Arbus  the photographer who notices  them as they are .

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Boy stepping off the curb, N.Y.C. 1957–58 Copyright © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

These are images on the cusp of becoming art works which I think is when her work is at its most interesting. You get a sense that Dianne Arbus is finding her way through her own emotional/psychological landscape through the lens of a camera and in the darkroom. You sense her fascination of meeting people from different walks of life, openly scrutinising them and letting them be themselves and you also become aware of just how influential and important she was to other photographers such as Cindy Sherman, Arthur Tress, Andre Serano and Nan Golding .

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Kid in a hooded jacket aiming a gun, N.Y.C. 1957.    Copyright © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC.

Accompanying this array of early 35mm camera work and on the other side of the gallery are her more familiar square format images from 1962 and 1970. These were presented as a boxed edition in 1970, a year later Dianne would end her own life.  This reality is not so much overlooked as not particularly dwelt upon. Is such a tragedy even relevant to the work? as viewers we make our own conclusions. These images are technically more accomplished, bigger, sharper, more composed, they have become photographic “artworks”.  A more graphic style is evident, in the 1967 image of Identical Twins, two girls in black dresses are symmetrically posed against a white background, their white stockinged legs contrast against a darkened wall. It’s a compelling image that still draws you in, time and time again. The eerie ambiance of the twins is a motif that would later be used in the film The Shinning by director Stanley Kubrick, who started off as a still’s photographer.

Installation view of diane arbus: in the beginning at Hayward Gallery, 2019. Photo: Mark Blower

03 Installation view of diane arbus- in the beginning at Hayward Gallery, 2019. Photo- Mark Blower

Installation view of diane arbus: in the beginning at Hayward Gallery, 2019. Photo: Mark Blower

In this part of the gallery we see that The Hooded Boy with Hand Gun has evolved into a more shocking photograph of A Boy with Toy Hand Grenade. It’s an image that immediately gets your attention, Munch’s expressionist Scream in the vessel of a child, in the distance almost silhouetted a mother or nanny pushes a pram whilst a skipping child holds onto the hand of another guardian.  Some people could argue as to its contrivance but to me that feels a bit like someone de constructing your favourite teenage anthem. I can still remember the impact this image had on me when I saw it in a Sunday Supplement whilst delivering newspapers in my early teens, it made me think differently about photography. Yet, the strongest image in the show in my opinion is the astute and prophetic image that is streets away from the hustle and bustle of New York City. It is a night time scene of a beautifully lit fairy-tale castle that pre-dates the notion of gentrification and Disneyfication. Titled A castle in Disneyland, Cal 1962 it is devoid of people, the only living creature is a solitary white swan gliding silently across the darkened water, the absence of children and childhood appears sinister, it’s a Neverland that looks like the gateway to Hades. I find it incredibly chilling.

Exhibition ends May 6th

 

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