In looking at the extensive photo exhibit devoted to the work of Diane Arbus, one can imagine being in her shoes and roaming New York with her perceptive eye for both the unusual and the relatively mundane. Titled “Diane Arbus: In the Beginning,” the show is at the Met Breuer (July 12-November 27, 2016) and covers the first years of Arbus’s career, spanning from 1956-1962.
You’ll find more than 100 photographs on display, not arranged in any special order. You can just walk along the the aisles and study the pictures on both sides, crisscrossing the large room on the Breuer’s second floor. What you’ll discover is an eclectic collection that captures her range.
Arbus had a fascination, for example, for men dressing as women, whether female impersonators or ordinary cross-dressers. She also enjoyed seeking out the bizarre at amusement parks, such as a man billed as the human pin cushion, Siamese twins (the old way of describing them rather than the politically correct co-joined), and other oddities.
In one amusing photo she shot a little boy doing a Maurice Chevalier impersonation. One of her best and most known photos is of two little girls who are identical twins. She snapped a man who had grown to giant height alongside his normally short parents. In contrast, there is a lone photo of a midget. There is a photo of a nudist couple indoors. Arbus was fond of capturing moments by taking pictures of action on movie screens.
But Arbus could also illuminate character by photographing an elegant woman finely dressed and suggesting stature. She would snap upscale dancers reflecting society life. She reveled in street scenes and captured children in various circumstances.
The exhibit also contains a few photos by contemporaries, but the work of Arbus overwhelms them in this display. I came away newly impressed with her artistry, but could not escape the feeling of sadness that such a talented person ended her life by suicide in 1971 at the age of 48. At the Met Breuer, Madison Avenue at 75th Street. Reviewed July 12, 2016.