New York City is larger than life.
We know this.
In the last year, I’ve been to the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th largest cities in the United States, and loved them all.
(Big ups to LA, Chicago, and Houston.)
Realistically, though, there’s only one New York.
JayZ, Derek Jeter, Ed Koch, Giuliani, Joe Namath, you name it. There are people we associate with the Big Apple because they stepped onto the biggest stage, and made it their own.
Cats on Broadway, Simon and Garfunkel in Central Park, John Starks, Jackie O, Donald Trump, Michael Bloomberg, Biggie Smalls.
My Dinner with Andre.
Daryl and Doc.
The Statue of Liberty.
You know what I’m talking about.
NYC has a mythology so strong that we call it Gotham, straight out of fucking Batman. It’s a city of blackouts, not blinding sunshine, and anyone who’s ever lived there for a while will describe “her” as an entity, a living thing.
And you won’t like her when she’s angry.
Within photography circles, Diane Arbus is seen in much the same way. A mega-talent who either honored, or took advantage of weirdos, depending on your vantage point. A once-in-a-generation vision so distinct that most of us can conjure Arbus pictures in our head with ease.
Most of her photographs could not have been made by anyone else, and her imprint has been seen on many photographers since. (I’m looking at you, Nan Goldin.)
When I think of Diane Arbus photographs, I think of carnies and losers, trannies and freaks. Strippers and Hustlers. Giants and fools.
But I don’t automatically think of New York.
Fortunately, I picked up “diane arbus: in the beginning” at photo-eye on my last visit, and boy are you in for a treat. The book is published by Yale University Press, in conjunction with the current show curated by Jeff Rosenheim at the Met Breuer. (Which used to house the Whitney, of course, in a horse trade between NYC Titans.)
This book oozes New York. It features early pictures, made almost entirely with a 35mm camera. So while we also associate Arbus with the square format, these photographs undermine what you think you know.
Simply put: they’re brilliant.
The book represents a whole trove of images that weren’t well-known until recently, many years after her suicide. And they firmly establish the roots of her talent, in my (not-always) humble opinion.
The plates start in the mid-50’s, and really look like they were made by Robert Frank. (At least at first.) But they were contemporaneous with his pictures, so even though similar, they couldn’t really be derivative.
Grainy, grabbed people on the street. The 50’s vibe is so strong that if I close my eyes…
“Hey guy. How youze doin’?”
“Uh, I’m good. Who are you?”
“Name’s Ritchie. I live out on Coney Eye-lan. Whatta you doin’ he-uh?”
“Uh, I don’t know Ritchie. One minute, I was writing a book review, then the next minute, I’m in my imagination, talking to you.”
“Wow. That’s crazy, Pops. Crazy. You wanna get outta he-uh? Me an’ the boyz is goin ta hang out undah da boahd-wahk.”
“Yeah. Sure. I guess. Will there be girls there too?”
Sorry. That was weird. But you get my point, no? These pictures are the equal of what all the other famous street photographers were doing. And it’s not even what we consider her classic work!
As you might expect, things eventually get a little weird. And dark. Then darker still.
The gaping-corpse-chest-cavity, below the dead guy’s receding hairline?
We see Siamese twins in formaldehyde at a carnival, a hacked up woman in a wax museum, kids in monster masks. Then the strippers and trannies show up too.
It’s like watching someone grow in real-time, as she took the gritty-street-photo aesthetic, and then force-fed it some creepy and transgressive shit. The content shifts so slowly, you don’t feel the water boiling as it cooks you alive.
In the end, we get the crammed christmas tree and boy with the grenade, in all their Medium Format Square glory, almost as smelling salts. Yes, this is the same photographer whose pictures you’ve memorized. Yes, she also made these badass street photos too.
Diane Arbus was a legend, and she belongs on the truncated list of NYC greats. The show is up at the Met Breuer until November 27th, so get your ass over there to see for yourself.
I’ve booked a trip to New York this Fall, so you can bet I’ll check it out. To be honest, I haven’t been back to NYC in 2.5 years, and I miss it, so that partially explains the overly-earnest introduction today. Hope you’ll forgive me…
Bottom Line: A masterpiece publication featuring Arbus’ early work