Stephen Frank, Diane Arbus with her photograph Identical twins, Roselle, N.J. 1966, during a lecture at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1970. © Stephen A. Frank
The photographer’s largely unseen set of 1960s photos focusing on outcasts of society is now on view at the Smithsonian
Mon 9 Apr 2018
In 1970, Diane Arbus was a struggling magazine photographer in New York City. She wanted to make more money, so she put together a series of photos in a plexiglass box, which she called “A box of ten photographs by Diane Arbus”, priced at $1,000.
The photos highlight the outcasts of American society, such as giants, dwarves and transvestites. Arbus’s photos shocked and disgusted art crowds to the point they were spat on when exhibited. As Norman Mailer observed: “Giving a camera to Diane Arbus is like putting a live grenade in the hands of a child.”
Stephen Frank, Diane Arbus with her photograph A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, N.Y.C. 1966, during a lecture at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1970. © Stephen A. Frank
This controversial series, taken from 1962 to 1967, are now on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC. Diane Arbus: A box of ten photographs showcases the original photo series – which was purchased from GH Dalsheimer Gallery in 1986 – alongside accompanying ephemera that traces Arbus’s meteoric rise to fame as an art star.
“I was amazed by this body of work, which I had never seen before,” said John Jacob, the curator of the exhibition who stumbled upon Arbus’s series in storage. “My immediate instinct was, ‘We have this treasure, let’s get it up.’”
Stephen Frank, Diane Arbus with her photograph Retired man and his wife in a nudist camp one morning, N.J. 1963, during a lecture at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1970. © Stephen A. Frank
The series also includes a shot of a nudist couple sitting in their living room – but while we cannot see it, the photographer was also naked. “How does she do it?” asked Irving Penn while reporting on Arbus. “She put a camera between those bare breasts and photographed those nudists.”
Another photo features Eddie Carmel, a Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx. The 1970 photo inspired Carmel’s cousin to make an audio documentary about him in 1999. A print of this photo was sold at auction for $421,000 in 2007.
Though she was a modestly recognized magazine photographer trying make it in the art world, Arbus wasn’t alone. In fact, she was part of a small community of photographers trying to have their photos taken seriously.
“Photography in contemporary art today came from Diane Arbus, she crossed the bridge first from editorial to the museum world,” said Jacob. “She is a pioneer who opened the door of the photograph being a fine artwork that is collectible.”
Diane Arbus, A woman with her baby monkey, N.J. 1971, 1971, gelatin silver print, 14 7/8 x 15 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum; Museum purchase. © The Estate of Diane Arbus
Arbus never saw her work as perfect, and once compared them to a stain. “My photos are proof that something was there, which no longer is,” she said in 1971. “You can turn away but when you come back, they’ll still be there looking at you.”
This series was special because Arbus curated everything about it. “When she did magazine work, she worked with art directors – they created a narrative out of her work,” said Jacob. “This was the only time she selected her own images, it’s a range of subject matter of her known and some less-known pictures.”
Diane Arbus, Boy with a straw hat waiting to march in a pro-war parade, cover of Artforum, May 1971, 10 ½ x 10 ½ in. Smithsonian American Art Museum; Museum purchase. © The Estate of Diane Arbus © Artforum, May 1971, “Five Photographs,” by Diane Arbus. Photo by Mindy Barrett
While the series was meant to be an edition of 50, there were only four editions created before Arbus took her own life in 1971 at age 48. The four were sold to prominent artists and art directors, including Ansel Adams and Jasper Johns.
“Of those four, this is the only one held in a public museum,” said Jacob. “This is the first time it’s been looked at as a portfolio in a public space; our set is the only one she made, sold and gave to a person who was a friend. It has 11 prints, instead of 10.”
The three-room exhibition features more than 50 pieces of ephemera, outlining her background in photography, her inspiration and even her hustle. She shares her excitement of the photos in letters written to her husband, and in letters to fans, where she tries to convince them to buy the box. “It’s an untold story, but an important one to help us understand how we look at photography today,” said Jacob.
When she was alive, Arbus was seen as a freakshow photographer, but when she died, she was recognized for finding the divinity in the everyday. Just one year after her death in 1972, Arbus was the first American photographer ever to show at the Venice Biennale. It was a sensation with rave reviews, long lineups and landed her a cover story of Artforum magazine. “It was the thing that propelled her posthumous career,” said Jacob. “Photography in contemporary art today came from this moment.”
Sadly, Arbus didn’t live to see the success of how far these 10 photos took her. “It was a story that went untold, until now,” said Jacob. “This portfolio was the big bang in her career. Even though she is no longer with us, her work is taking on new proportions.”
Diane Arbus: A box of ten photographs will be exhibited at the Smithsonian in Washington DC until 21 January
APRIL 6, 2018 — JANUARY 21, 2019
Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and F Streets, NW)
“They are the proof that something was there and no longer is. Like a stain. And the stillness of them is boggling. You can turn away but when you come back they’ll still be there looking at you.”
—Diane Arbus, 1971
In late 1969, Diane Arbus began to work on a portfolio. At the time of her death in 1971, she had completed the printing for eight known sets of A box of ten photographs, of a planned edition of fifty, only four of which she sold during her lifetime. Two were purchased by photographer Richard Avedon; another by artist Jasper Johns. A fourth was purchased by Bea Feitler, art director atHarper’s Bazaar, for whom Arbus added an eleventh photograph.
This exhibition traces the history of A box of ten photographs between 1969 and 1973, using the set that Arbus assembled for Feitler, which was acquired by SAAM in 1986. The story is a crucial one because it was the portfolio that established the foundation for Arbus’s posthumous career, ushering in photography’s acceptance to the realm of “serious” art. After his encounter with Arbus and the portfolio, Philip Leider, then editor in chief of Artforum and a photography skeptic, admitted, “With Diane Arbus, one could find oneself interested in photography or not, but one could no longer. . . deny its status as art. . . . What changed everything was the portfolio itself.”
Stephen Frank, Diane Arbus with her photograph A young man in curlers at home on West 20th Street, N.Y.C. 1966, during a lecture at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1970. © Stephen A. Frank
In May 1971, Arbus was the first photographer to be featured in Artforum, which also showcased her work on its cover. In June 1972, the portfolio was sent to Venice, where Arbus was the first photographer included in a Biennale, at that time the premiere international showcase for contemporary artists. SAAM organized the American contribution to the Biennale that year, thereby playing an important early role in Arbus’s legacy.
John Jacob, the McEvoy Family Curator for Photography at SAAM, organized the exhibition. The forthcoming catalogue, copublished with the Aperture Foundation, features an in-depth essay by Jacob that presents new and compelling scholarship correcting errors by Arbus’s biographers and adding significant detail to the period between her death and the 1972 posthumous retrospective at MoMA.