Exhibition Review: Diane Arbus – American Portraits

Art Gallery of South Australia 

What: Diane Arbus: American Portraits

Where: Gallery 23, The Art Gallery of South Australia

When: 14 July 2018 – 30 September 2018

Who: Diane Arbus: American portraits is a National Gallery of Australia Exhibition. This project has been assisted by the Australian Government’s Visions of Australia program.

Cost: Free 

The Art Gallery of South Australia is currently home to thirty-six rare vintage photographs by iconic photographer Diane Arbus (1923-1971). Based in New York, Arbus practiced independent photography for just over a decade until her death in 1971. Her portraits capture post-war America. They exemplify her insatiable curiosity for society at the time. Behind seemingly candid portraits there is a primacy Arbus extended to her subjects.

The common theme throughout her brief photographic career is the people who resided outside of a conventional place in society, whether by force or choice. Arbus, in stunning portraits of black and white, captures their identity. Her work is polarising, and brings up questions of potential power in-balance and her intent in photographing what are sometimes unflattering, sometimes empowering depictions of marginalised people.

Her upbringing was largely unaffected by the strains of the Great Depression which fell on America, and yet her photography shows a desire to explore outside of her privilege. Arbus’ favourite thing was ‘to go where I’ve never been’ and she considered her photography to embrace ‘things which nobody would see unless I photographed them’. These two well placed and picked quotes resonate throughout this exhibition.

Screen Shot 2018-08-29 at 1.07.16 PM
Diane Arbus, A Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents, in the Bronx, N.Y., 1970.

The exhibition is spread throughout three large rooms, beginning with an introduction to Arbus’ early life and a self-portrait. Four wall texts spread throughout the rooms illustrate the narrative, beginning with an overview of Arbus’ life before photography, her style, her relationship with her subjects and ending with the ‘The Arbus Legacy’ in the final room. These signal an otherwise unobservable narrative to the audience, partly as her portraits are not organised in chronological order nor do they strongly progress in any other style or theme.

It was slightly disappointing the narrative of the exhibition surrendered the opportunity to engage in a deeper commentary on America at the time and the exploitative potential of her photography. Instead the polarising nature of Arbus’ work is left on the shoulders of the audience to perceive her intent without many cues to encourage this discussion aside from the very photographs themselves.

Dispersed throughout the exhibition labels are expertly woven small anecdotes or longer insights into Arbus’ process or her subject. Poignant quotes, further information about the process and the relevance of the contemporaries who informed Arbus’ practice provide information to the viewer to utilise in their interpretation. None of this is overdone and so attention is never tempted to wander.

The space is dimly lit, contrasted with spotlights on each photograph. The viewer is encouraged by the spotlight to focus on the work. Although not quite bright enough to properly see by, the effect is still successful in creating a simple, clean contrast which did not distract from the black and white photography. Creating such a focused and sterile platform allowed the space for the viewer to appreciate the difference in the photographs. This is reflective of Arbus’ style where the greater importance was placed on the subject than the technical aspects of her work.  It reinforced my attentiveness when meeting the eyes of Arbus’ subject.

The audience is enticed to lean in, easily finding the portraits at eye level, their positioning uncomplicated in single file and spaced apart. The photographs sit within a large white border drawing focus to their black and white centre. Many a visitor can be spotted with their nose nearly touching the portraits. Groupings of artists are made obvious through the subtle use of matching frame colours of black, white and wooden. Towards the end of the exhibition this technique lacks consistency, likely due to the travelling nature of this exhibition and the new AGSA space it resides in. Complementing the portraiture are glass enclosed tables with printed media such as an issue of Harpers Bazaar featuring Arbus’ work, a letter from Arbus, and contact sheets.

Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph

Alongside Arbus’ portraits are works by those who inspired her practice, her contemporaries, and those who inherited her legacy – including Lisette Model, Weegee, and Walker Evans. These are equitably intermingled throughout the four subsections of the exhibit, illustrating pervasive parallels and differences, and contextualizing Arbus’ work with not only American photography in the 60s but within a larger developing genre of portraiture.

Ending the exhibition is a 28-minute documentary piece, ‘Masters of Photography: Diane Arbus’ directed by John Musilli, in a closed off space where the viewer is able to sit and culminate what they have viewed in the rest of the exhibition. The piece shows interviews with Arbus’ contemporaries, many of which have just been viewed, alongside a slideshow of her photos, some of which have been spotted throughout the exhibit. It provides an insightful and moving commentary about the process of their taking and the subjects themselves. Although the audience will likely only capture snippets of this documentary, I found it to be a highlight of the exhibition, cementing a new-found familiarity with Arbus and her work.

I was impressed with the simple interpretive strategies employed in this exhibition, because it enabled the portraiture to shine. There was a delicate balance of anecdotes and quotes, the portraiture was presented in a clean aesthetic which encouraged focus, the context of the other photographers shown was relevant, and the printed media and video rounded off an excellent selection of Arbus’ work. I found myself interested and connected, however also was conflicted with voyeuristic feelings which I reflected on regarding viewing the portraits under the light of being empowering or exploitative. The exhibition stimulated but did not sufficiently explore what could have been an encompassing narrative of what makes Arbus’ well known photography so polarising and what could have been a more meaningful experience of the exhibition. Overall I was in awe, and appreciative of the subjects Arbus felt the urge to photograph and make seen. The Art Gallery of South Australia argues that Arbus’ photographs make us see the world differently. I perceive that Arbus’ portraits instead, make us see the differences in the world.

Diane Arbus, Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C., 1962.


– Claudia von der Borch

3.5/5 stars

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