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The Diane Arbus List: Photographers Discuss the Legend’s Early Days

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Whether in painting, music, literature, as in all the Arts, we tend to know the masters’ oeuvres inside-out. We know Johannes Vermeer had 34 paintings; we know that Beethoven had nine symphonies. So when a newly discovered dusty musical manuscript appears in the hand of the composer, an previously unknown Vermeer appears from a private collection or a safely-vaulted Salinger book gets released years after his death, we all sit up and take notice. Is this work up to their standards? Has it changed our view of the artist or shown new early stages of their genius? Why have we not seen or heard of it before?

When I was a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art some years back, I guarded a show of Robert Frank’s work everyday for two months. I became intimate with the work. To quell the everyday boredom, I’d asked my photo colleagues who came to the show what was their favorite images from his seminal book The Americans. After I quit the Met, I compiled their answers in a book called The Americans List — and even Frank participated.

As Diane Arbus’ landmark exhibition at the Met, which features many never-before-seen images, draws to a close, I asked photographers who knew her or were influenced by her work, including her daughter Amy Arbus, to assess whether what they saw surprised them or disappointed them. Their answers are compiled in this slideshow.

Diane Arbus: In the Beginning is on view at the Met Breuer until Nov. 27. It will then travel to San Francisco MOMA from Jan. 21 to April 30, 2017. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue by Jeff L. Rosenheim published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Jason Eskenazi is a photographer based in New York City.

Natalie Matutschovsky, who edited this photo essay, is a senior photo editor at TIME.

Woman carrying a child in Central Park, N.Y.C., 1956 Tod Pappageorge: I knew a good bit of this early work, so I can’t say that I was really surprised by the pictures I hadn’t seen before, apart from their number, and by how vividly they confirmed just how all-engrossing, and defined, Diane’s photographic project was right from the beginning. That said, I found myself generally most moved by her pictures of, what I would call, members of her own very upper middle-class world (a world she was at such pains to reject). All women, I think. For example, a mother (I’d guess) moving toward Diane’s camera carrying a child in Central Park.The Estate of Diane Arbus
Bela Lugosi as Dracula on television, 1958 John Gossage: Early pictures when Diane was still looking. Looking at a world she was about to enter. She told me she showed her early photographs to John Szarkowski who said that they where brilliant "but not quite pictures."The Estate of Diane Arbus
Windblown headline on a dark pavement, NYC 1956 Amy Touchette : I love Diane Arbus’ photography because she portrayed subjects who were often discarded by mainstream society with humanity and tenderness. So I'm surprised that the image I find most compelling in “Diane Arbus: In the Beginning” is a photograph that contains no people at all. For most, a newspaper on the sidewalk is trash—something we walk by or even step on without noticing. But not to Arbus.By photographing an inanimate object, I see with more clarity than ever her uncanny ability to portray and pay respect. This image of a lone newspaper foreshadows many of her iconic portraits to come: isolated, seemingly discarded or lost, and surrounded by darkness, her subject rests partly open by the wind, but remains mostly closed, silently screaming a headline we can’t quite decipher, but yearn so much to know.The Estate of Diane Arbus
Corpse with receding hairline and toe tag .N.Y.C 1959 Donna Ferrato: Diane once said “I do feel I have some slight corner on something about the quality of things. I mean it’s very subtle and a little embarrassing to me but I really believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them.” Looking at the earliest work, she made a conscious break from the art world, the establishment that never wants to look at anything that makes them uncomfortable. She dove into the strange world of misfits and freaks, that was her thing from the beginning. I respect the way she couldn't say no to her dark side. 100% respect.The Estate of Diane Arbus
Child teasing another, N.Y.C., 1960 Ken Schles: In the Beginning shows us a photographer already in her element. We see the usual strippers, sideshow freaks, vamps, outliers and children that act as surrogates to something transcendent and primal (never solely representative of who or what they depict). Rendered as icons (centered and separated, either by the subject’s psychological preoccupations or by Arbus by design as she formally and artlessly centered them in her frame), these saints and (mischievous) deities are immune to the banal vulgarities of our everyday sphere yet erupt straight out of it. Shot in available light, this is a murkier, more dream-like world than what we see in the cold surface-intensive renderings prevalent in her later flash work. But don’t be mistaken. Arbus’ animus is no less driven here. In fact, while the soft focus might connect the work more closely to some of her progenitors and contemporaries like Frank and Klein, I find some of these images more startling than her later work because the chimeric everyday deities displayed are not unlike people we pass on the street today—only in her images they become simultaneously both more evanescent and less dismissible.The Estate of Diane Arbus
Man yelling in Times Square, NYC, 1958 Stuart Alexander: Many of the best photographs from this period were already included in the 2003 retrospective Diane Arbus Revelations. The present exhibition makes it clear that she was still finding her way. The installation itself, with individual photographs on narrow panels like trees in the forest, forces the viewer to mimic her wandering until arriving at her mature work, the Box of Ten Photographs, consecrated in a temple-like space at the end of the journey in the far corner of the gallery. The Estate of Diane Arbus
Couple arguing, Coney Island, NY, 1960 Mark Steinmetz: Looking through the early photographs of Diane Arbus, I am struck by the ones where Arbus goes unnoticed by her subjects. In this photo, something is really happening. The man takes up the center of the frame while the woman floats a little behind and clings to him tightly. Without much by way of legs or arms, she could be an annoying apparition. Her mouth is wide-open in mid-yap; his is tightly shut. His face is turned away from her verbal onslaught as he tries to tune her out. His right arm is positioned as if carrying a shield (this gladiator has a cigarette instead of a sword), and his eyes seek an escape somewhere off in the distance and in the future.The Estate of Diane Arbus
A castle in Disneyland, Cal. 1962 and Xmas tree in living room in Levittown, L.I. 1962 Gus Powell: These are two Arbus images that are in my juke box, the A and the B side that have stayed with me. These are both fairly well-known images, but are atypical in that they are both absent of a classic Arbus protagonist or freak. I was surprised to learn that both of these were from the early years, and delighted to see more pictures that were absent of people, pictures that let you see Arbus see, rather than see who Arbus saw. The wonderful curation and installation of this exhibition lets you wander amidst the pictures as Arbus might have wandered the city. You encounter an image of an amusement park game. It’s a machine with a grip that when fed a coin and squeezed, will let you know your temperament. No one is standing at it, but the light for tender is lit. Such a simple picture, but this is what we do, we go out looking at the world to see what can be seen, but it’s always conditioned, illuminated by the feelings that we bring. Every one of her pictures is illuminated with some tenderness.The Estate of Diane Arbus
Man holding a sleeping child, N.Y.C, 1957 Yola Monakhov Stockton: Arbus’ biography as mother and photographer of the complex theater of human affections comes to mind when looking at her photographs depicting men (instead of fathers) holding their children. This scenario could be an obverse self-portrait – a child in place of camera, the father addressing the camera’s gaze. Behind the figures, granite steps leading toward (instead of to) heavy doorways suggest a public building and institutional rites of passage. The father’s emotive face, turned-up collar, shiny shoes and raffish coiffure channel James Dean, but here his hands strain to hold a sleeping boy who is wearing the same proper shoes in miniature. A new Madonna and child, of fatherhood and aspiration on a New York City street, is recognized as uncertain ceremony, a weight to feel. The Estate of Diane Arbus
Miss Stormé de Larverie, the lady who appears to be a gentleman, N.Y.C. 1961 Amy Arbus: In this portrait, the subject looks every bit as intrigued about the photographer, as the other way around. It is a kind, gentle, completely unadorned investigation of an open, honest soul who seems a bit bemused. Most people were drawn to my mom's strength, intelligence, charm and beauty, while others were intoxicated, seduced or baffled. Many of the pictures in the exhibition are surprisingly grainy and tactile, and ever so romantic, poetic, funny, and tender. The design of the exhibition is unprecedented in that there is only one picture on each little “partition.” Rather than seeing them in a box, it is a dimensional experience, as though one were in a maze or a hall of mirrors rather than simply bearing witness.The Estate of Diane Arbus

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