Lévy Gorvy Gallery, May 2nd – June 24th, 2017


It is amazing to think of all the talent in photography in the 1950’s.  In this decade the medium began to insist on its merit as a fine art.  The Family of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955 was the apotheosis of photography as a form of artistic documentation.  Curated by Edward Steichen, the exhibition was seen by over 9 million people around the globe, leaving an indelible impression of humanism on generations.  The popular publication under the same name was filled with inspirational quotes and questions . . .

Who is the slayer, who the victim? Speak.  – Sophocles

Cover of the softcover edition of ‘The Family of Man’, priced $1.00 in 1955 when issued.

Diane Arbus was a part of the Family of Man exhibition and at the forefront of the growth of photography as high art.  Her path to fame was determined by a particular vision derived from a particular upbringing.  She was well-to-do, attended Fieldston and grew up mostly on Central Park West.  Her father was the owner of Russek’s, a Fifth Avenue department store.  She married at 18 to actor Allan Arbus and together they had a commercial studio, working for her father, Bonwit Teller and various magazines.  In 1956, Diane to began to pursue her own subjects.  This early experience in fashion photography was the direct opposite of the trajectory of Arbus’s artistic career.

Like Lisette Model, who was a teacher and great influence, Diane’s photographs penetrated the idea specificity as a kind of antithesis to the commercial model of common man.  But in this specificity was also a sense of the general, and the arbitrary.

Model and Arbus employed the snapshot.  Model had this to say about the technique that is now ubiquitous:

 “I am a passionate lover of the snapshot, because of all photographic images, it comes closest to the truth … the snapshooter[‘s] pictures have an apparent disorder and imperfection which is exactly their appeal and their style.”

Robert Frank was a great proponent of the snapshot as well, whose book, The Americans first published in France in 1958, typified the aesthetic.  At the risk of being didactic, Frank had this to say about photography:

There is one thing that photography must contain, the humanity of the moment.

An exhibition at Lévy Gorvy takes on Diane Arbus’s work in the parks, namely Central Park and Washington Square.  When we think of the parks in New York, we think of a place where one can let their hair (or guard) down, a wild area where we stroll through the seasons or idle away a half hour on a bench with a lover or a friend.  If you sit in a park in New York around sunset you can understand light and movement in a social sense.  Arbus was driven to it.

Diane Arbus mastered the art of contrast.  Her famous black and white portraits isolate the figures against the background.  This was sometimes accomplished by using a flash in daytime.  Other times it was manipulated in the darkroom. In a discussion at Lévy Gorvy, photographer and Diane Arbus’s main printer, Neil Selkirk, explained Arbus’s affinity for a kind of physical darkness, “she was completely oblivious to conventions of quality . . . she was interested in darkness . . . it was against everything I learned.”

The magic of her work is that we are still determining the emotional effects of her reflection.  The world may have been very dark for Diane Arbus, but she captured that idea beautifully.  Within this darkness lay the tragic truth and a kind of scrutiny that was poetically sensitive.

Woman in long coat and dark hat, Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962. Photo: Diane Arbus/Copyright © The Estate of Diane Arbus

In an exhibition of 38 photographs covering two floors of the gallery, there is only one image where the subject is baring their teeth.  Smiling was not essential to the program.  New Yorkers, don’t really smile easily anyway.  It’s too damn hard.  At her best, Arbus captured the grave intensity of living in the city while lifting the veil to show the lightness of being.  This external contradiction is so New York and is best exemplified out of doors in the light of day.  She was confident in this contrast:

A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.

It is apparent that Diane Arbus was less occupied with the upper crust than capturing something of the rest of humanity.  It is still an aristocratic look at the world.  Diane Arbus was always ingratiating but pointing the camera at people no matter how random is a way of capturing or dominating their spirit.  However, it can be a game of thrones, as to who is the conqueror.  Thus is the gap between intention and effect, something Arbus was deeply involved with.

Blonde girl, Washington Square Park, N.Y.C. 1965. Photo: Diane Arbus/Copyright © The Estate of Diane Arbus

“… I remember one summer I worked a lot in Washington Square Park. It must have been about 1966. The park was divided. It has these walks, sort of like a sunburst, and there were these territories staked out. There were young hippie junkies down one row. There were lesbians down another, really tough amazingly hard-core lesbians. And in the middle were winos. They were like the first echelon and the girls who came from the Bronx to become hippies would have to sleep with the winos to get to sit on the other part with the junkie hippies. It was really remarkable. And I found it very scary… There were days I just couldn’t work there and then there were days I could…. I got to know a few of them. I hung around a lot. I was very keen to get close to them, so I had to ask to photograph them.” – D.A.

A young man and his girlfriend with hot dogs in the park, N.Y.C. 1971 © The Estate of Diane Arbus