The Art Gallery of Ontario has put together a series of images from one of America’s best-known and controversial photographers, Diane Arbus. In her solo exhibition, Diane Arbus: Photographs, 1956 – 1971, 150 of the 522 portraits the institution acquired are on display, making it the world’s second-largest collection of images from the late photographer. The retrospective chronologically unveils her compelling talents and maturation as an artist and is available to see until May 18, 2020.
Born in 1923 as Diane Nemerov, Arbus grew up in an affluent family that owned a department store amid the great depression in New York City. It was her far removal from general society, which became the catalyst for her photographic practice. Arbus had a fascination with those who willingly chose to live on the outskirts of reality which, eventually fused with the singularity of her subjects seen in photos.
At the age of 18, Arbus married her then-husband, Allan Arbus, who was previously serving in the war as a photographer. Shortly after their honeymoon, the two went into business together as creative directors and image-makers for fashion spreads in magazines. During their partnership, the couple worked for publications such as Glamour and Vogue until their separation in the mid-1950s.
Arbus’s exhibition at the AGO begins in 1956. When the photographer started to pursue photography independently, her works are rendered in striking black and white and feature charming characters she would meet on the streets of New York.
Beyond satisfying her curiosity for interesting personalities, many of the images on display recontextualize identity and probe viewers to explore the various aspects of subcultures within America. Predominant subjects for her pictures include circus performers, transgendered people, children, and the New York City elite. Images such as Woman and a dwarf backstage at the circus, N.Y.C., 1958 and Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, L.I, 1959, speaks to Arbus’ unique ability to capture the city through its citizens.
In 1962, Arbus moved from an intimate 33mm camera to a 2¼ Rolleiflex camera, which offers a distinctive square format that would, eventually, become a signature for the photographer. Prints in the exhibition during the following decade continue to validate themes of “otherness.” For instance, Puerto Rican woman with a beauty mark, N.Y.C (1965) and Tattooed man at a carnival, Md (1970) are images that reclaim the power of the subject when they presented in full detail to people who question their existence.
The exhibition, Diane Arbus: Photographs, 1956 – 1971, is a retrospective of the photographer’s career over fifteen years. Many of the images are exciting and sheds light on an era of eccentricities and unrest. Today her works are held in collections across the world at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C, and is now on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.