You never forget your first Arbus.
In the early 1980s, I worked for legendary art dealer Harry Lunn, whose vision and impact first established photography as a thriving component of the art market. An art history graduate student, I was charged with creating condition reports and cataloging the trove of photographs acquired during his frequent buying trips to Europe. Immersed in this totally new medium — my then passion was nineteenth-century American landscape painting — I was learning firsthand, box by box, about the history of photography during my hours spent in that archive room.
When the lid came off the Arbuses, Identical twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967, stared back at me. Raw, visceral, unnamable, the image defied me to look away. I studied the cut of the eyes of the girl on my left, her tight mouth; the softness of the twin on my right with her open eyes and fuller lips. (Identical, really?) The tension, or lack thereof, in the hands. The green corduroy dresses that I would later learn were worn to a Christmas party for twins and triplets that Diane Arbus had somehow learned about. Innocence, menace; Arbus had made the familiar totally unfamiliar. Here was something unlocked. You will look at what I am compelled to see, she seemed to be saying. How, I asked myself, could a photographer do that, conjure with a lens such unease and demand total engagement?
In other words, just how did Arbus become Arbus? This question was explored in diane arbus: in the beginning, a recent exhibition of rarely or never-before-seen early photographs at The Met Breuer drawn from The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2007 acquisition of all of Arbus’s notes, prints and negatives from the artist’s daughters, Doon and Amy Arbus. At the time of Arbus’s death from suicide at 48 in 1971, much of this work was stored in boxes in an inaccessible corner of the photographer’s basement darkroom at 29 Charles Street in Greenwich Village. The prints remained undiscovered for several years thereafter and were not even inventoried until a decade after her death.
The 100 photographs in the exhibition focused on the first seven years of Arbus’s career, from 1956 to 1962 — the period when she developed the idiosyncratic provocative style and approach for which she has been recognized, praised, criticized and copied the world over. For anyone who might retain doubt about where she was headed, the exhibition concluded with A Box of Ten Photographs, a limited-edition print portfolio of ten images Arbus compiled in 1971 that she felt best represented her photographic achievement. The portfolio images, now icons within the history of late twentieth-century photography, include Identical twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967, along with others I unpacked that day at Harry Lunn’s: A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, N.Y.C., 1966; Boy with a straw hat waiting to march in a pro-war parade, N.Y.C., 1967 and A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y., 1970.