Seeing Brooklyn through a lens darkly
Q&A with Jeff L. Rosenheim, Curator in Charge, Department of Photographs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, on the Occasion of the Exhibition ‘Diane Arbus: In the Beginning 1956-1962’ on View at The Met Breuer Through November 2016
The Roman playwright Terence famously wrote, “Nothing human is foreign to me.” Closer to home, and in a similar vein, our own Walt Whitman counseled, “Be curious, not judgmental.” Looking at the remarkable, early photographs in the Met Breuer’s stunning exhibition “Diane Arbus: In the Beginning,” it seems evident that Arbus was working from Terence’s and Whitman’s playbook.
Like Whitman, Arbus embraced multitudes. And among those multitudes was a fair sampling of Brooklyn kooks, oddballs and eccentrics. In fact, Brooklyn, in particular Coney Island, was her favorite outer-borough locale.
“Arbus instinctively understood that photography is a medium that implicates the viewer,” Jeff L. Rosenheim, the Met’s curator in charge, Department of Photographs, told me in an interview conducted shortly after the exhibition’s opening. “In photography, we, as viewers, are the transgressors. We look in the hope of being transformed. Arbus’ photographs are teaching us about who we are. They are a mirror.”
Now recognized as masterworks of 20th-century photography, Arbus’ photographs of the marginalized — “freak at home,” roller derby women,” “lonelyhearts club” (a partial list of potential subjects Arbus kept in her many notebooks) — were reflective of her fascination with everyone and everything. At the beginning of Rosenheim’s essay in the Yale University Press catalog that accompanies the exhibition, he cites a school paper that Arbus wrote on Plato as a 16-year-old student at Fieldston. Even as a teenager, her Whitman-esque fecundity is on full display:
“There are and have been and will be an infinite number of things on earth: individuals all different, all wanting different things, all knowing different things, all loving different things, all looking different. Everything that has been on earth has been different from any other thing. That is what I love: the differentness, the uniqueness of all things and the importance of life … I see something that seems wonderful; I see the divineness in ordinary things.”
The essay may have been on Plato, but the sensibility is straight from straight from pastor Whitman’s hymnal.
The following are excerpts from my recent interview with Rosenheim:
Brooklyn Eagle: The Met acquired the Arbus archive in 2007. Why the nine-year interval between the acquisition and this exhibition?
Jeff L.Rosenheim: I had approached Doon and Amy [Arbus, Diane’s daughters] in 2005 about getting the Diane Arbus archive for the Met. It took two years to make the gift happen. So in 2007, we began cataloging, inventorying and preserving the images, which, as you can imagine, took a long time. In addition, during this period I was deeply involved in other long-term projects, such as the Civil War photography show, the Carlton Watkins, Charles Marville and Gary Winogrand retrospectives. Time passed…
Eagle: What made you decide to have the exhibition at the Met Breuer, rather than the mother ship on Fifth Avenue?
JLR: During the time period I mentioned, the Whitney had decamped for the meat-packing district and the Met acquired the Breuer building on Madison. Tom [Thomas P. Campbell, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art] asked all the curators what would make a splash for the first exhibition. I felt the Arbus show had the potential to resonate with the strong urban profile of Breuer’s architecture.
Eagle: Having read Patricia Bosworth’s and Arthur Lubow’s biographies — and having myself researched and written about Arbus’ years at Fieldston School — it seems she was as curious and fearless in her personal life as she was in her professional life. Do you think she could have taken the photographs she did without having lived the life she did?
JLR: That’s a good question. The distinguishing aspect of Arbus’ work is that she herself excavated, explored and ventured down every pathway. She didn’t phone it in. She would go places nobody else wanted to go: the New York City morgue, the meat-packing district (when that was still exactly what it was) at 4 a.m., the Bowery (again, before it became hip and gentrified). Did she live a transgressive life? I guess to the extent you can say Caravaggio, Lucien Freud, even Picasso lived transgressive lives. She lifted up the rock and wasn’t afraid to see what was underneath.
Eagle: The Sander [August Sander, an influential German photographer, who photographed very deliberate, posed portraits of bankers, postmen, bailiffs and other members of the bourgeois] analogy/contrast you make is very insightful and instructive. However, do you think Arbus may also have posed her subjects?
JLR: As I write in my catalog essay, Sander deliberately posed his subjects and wanted them to be expressly conscious of representing their roles in society, Arbus’ subjects, generally, were not posed and represented only their idiosyncratic selves. However, the subjects of both Sander and Arbus share a dignity and solemnity in the manner in which they face the camera. Also, unlike Walker Evans, Paul Strand, Garry Winogrand, Helen Leavitt, all of whom wanted to remain anonymous and hidden while photographing their subjects, Arbus stood her ground; she didn’t disguise the fact that she was shooting pictures. Again, as I write in my essay, she was looking for the poignancy of a direct personal encounter.
Eagle: In your essay there is a very revealing quote from Arbus: “For me, the subject of the picture is always more important than the picture. And more complicated.”
JLR: And, of course, her subjects stare back at her! And many times they aren’t exactly crazy about the idea of her looking at them so intensely. Look at that remarkable photo of the woman on the bus [“Lady on Bus, NYC, 1957”].
Eagle: I love the impassive guy seated behind her, paying no attention to Arbus, just looking out the window, lost in thought.
JLR: You know there’s a Whitmanesque quality to that guy. Whitman would always ride the omnibus from Brooklyn to Manhattan. He took in the drama, the circus, the poetry, of the street. Like Arbus, he wasn’t detached; he looked at everything. And, again like Arbus, without judgement. They were both looking for the secrets of the world.
Eagle: In addition, she seemed very drawn to Brooklyn, especially Coney Island.
JLR: Yes, it’s absolutely true about Brooklyn. So many of her iconic images were shot at Coney Island: “Man in Hat, Trunks, Socks and Shoes,” “Young Man with a Paper Bag,” the unforgettable “Couple Arguing.”
Eagle: Finally, speaking of quotes, Arbus once said, “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.” As Maynard G. Krebs might have said, “That’s deep.” Can you elucidate?
JLR: Arbus believed that she had a special “something” that made people feel comfortable enough to share secrets with her. She felt that she could be a medium. And her instinct told her that the photograph should be made when the subject and the artist are most aligned. The photograph is self-revelatory on both sides.
“Diane Arbus: In the Beginning” will be on view at The Met Breuer Through Nov. 27, 2016.
For more information, visit www.metmuseum.org.
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The accompanying catalog is available from Yale University Press (yalebooks.com/art).
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