Home Article Art Art/Photography Exhibition: Diane Arbus’ ‘American Portraits’

Art/Photography Exhibition: Diane Arbus’ ‘American Portraits’

National Gallery of Australia’s touring exhibition, Diane Arbus: American Portraits


Date: 21 March-17 June 2018

Location: Heide III: Central Galleries
Heide Museum of Modern Art


‘The photographs of Diane Arbus (1923-71) are among the most widely recognized in the history of photography. Her images stand as powerful allegories of post-war America, and once seen are rarely forgotten…featuring 35 of Arbus’s most iconic and confrontational images from 1961-71, this exhibition examines the last decade of Arbus’ life and the period in which her style is in full flight. Her subjects were often drawn from society’s margins.’ (Reference: Heide website).


The way that Arbus approached the genre of portraiture was confronting. The intent of the photographer is questioned.


The Arbus works are shown alongside photographs by others who also sought to redefine the tradition of portraiture and whose vision of America is also both challenging and moving.


‘Arbus was drawn to the weird, the outcasts, those on the periphery…What fascinated her was authenticity and she went looking for that in the streets, around Central Park.


It is clear she had great empathy for those she shot, a perspective that was no doubt coloured by her own privileged upbringing…she believed that people who are born with a disability or on the margins of society are living in a space of having experienced their trauma, while the rest of us go through life fearful of trauma…Clearly, she wanted to give recognition or coverage to those who are different.


It is clear that Arbus hated aspects of America.’ its hypocrisy…the consumerism, the racism, O’Hehir says.*


(*Much of the above is referenced from an article by Kerrie O’Brien, The Age, 14 March 2018)

One of the most striking works in the exhibition is ‘Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C.’ (1962) by Diane Arbus, and is one of her most famous. See below.

Figure 1, p122 Nelson, Deborah, Tough Enough, C 2017 by the University of Chicago…what looks like his derangement only erupts in the context of the interaction with Arbus. John Szarkowski, the Museum of Modern Art’s director of photographs said in a wall text of the 1972 retrospective ‘Diane Arbus’ pictures challenge the basic assumptions on which documentary photography has been thought to rest, for they deal with private rather than social realities, with psychological rather than historical fact…

Her photographs record the outward signs of inner mysteries…The way they look back – continues to surprise, confront, and trouble her audience. In the exhibit catalog for the later exhibition Revelations, we see Arbus as a serious, if still idiosyncratic theorist of photography…From her encounters with the socially marginal…she liked to capture what she called ‘the gap’ which is the distance between a person’s intended and cultural self-representation. p127 Tough Enough. This is the essence of Arbus. This sums up her raison el etre and is not usually addressed in exhibition catalogs.


Look for that ‘gap’ when you visit the exhibition at Heide III. It is one of the ‘must see’ exhibitions of the year. It will blow your mind!


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here