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Looking Back: Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin, and Robert Frank in New York City

By (August 1, 2016) No Comment


overheard in museum lobby:

“Why are there so many weird people in New York City?
And they’re all tourists.”

‘Weird’ is the word most associated with Diane Arbus’s photography. Her subjects are weird. She was weird. Everyone has seen the boy grimacing as he squeezes the toy hand grenade, those eerie twins standing shoulder to shoulder, or the “human pin cushion.” All of these iconic photos are present in the new show “Diane Arbus: In the Beginning,” on view until November 27 at the Met Breuer, formerly the Whitney Museum and now the Metropolitan Museum’s newly-opened annex for modern and contemporary art. But this show investigates the origins of those better-known, later, weirder images. Focusing on the early work from 1956 to 1962, it presents a personal, cumulative record of her home city, New York, as it changed before her eyes: Hubert’s Dime Museum and the Grand Opera Ball were already in decline when she shot them. From Coney Island to Central Park, Arbus roamed the streets she grew up on to chronicle its strangest people and moments, condensing a period of great social and cultural change into hundreds of small black and white images.

As it happens, she is one of an unlikely trio of photographers on display in the city now. Arbus, Nan Goldin, and Robert Frank create the kind of lopsided triangle where two legs are always longer than the other: themes of intimacy, difference, and cultural change run through all of their work in uneven proportions. About a mile from the Met show one finds Goldin’s “Ballad of Sexual Dependency” at the Museum of Modern Art (on view until February 12, 2017). Its over 700 images constitute a no-holds-barred visual diary of her life in the 1980s. A few miles further downtown a new documentary on Frank screened at the Film Forum and tried to make sense of his enormous and influential creative output.

GoldinSexualDependency There are different possible pairings within this threesome: both Arbus and Frank began their careers in the 1950s and documented its visible contradictions. Frank’s best-known project, a photo-essay taken during a cross-country road trip that he published in 1958 as The Americans, revealed the public shame of our race relations just as Goldin’s self-portraits of domestic abuse revealed our private ones around sex and gender. (Indeed, in a recent essay on Goldin in The New Yorker Hilton Als quotes one early critic who argued that Goldin was to the 1980s what Frank was to the 1950s….) Arbus, who died in 1971, could have passed a baton to Goldin, who started taking photographs of her own precarious community as a teenager around the same time. Frank’s long life and career, still going strong at age 91, could make him the thread that unites all this work together.

There’s another tempting story here: the two subversive women artists facing off against more acclaimed contemporaries like Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, and Frank himself, who are all named in the Arbus show as a sort of canonical triumvirate (ironically, associated with MoMA, where Goldin now reigns). But to dismiss Frank as some exemplar of tradition and male privilege isn’t fair, as the new documentary Don’t Blink makes clear. The title of the film seems to evoke Frank’s fearless examination of his subjects (he says photographs “intrude” at one point in the film as he resists being “pinned” by an interviewer himself). The randomness of this time (a week in July) and place (New York City) make a strangely compelling grouping out of these three otherwise widely different artists.

dontblinkThe catalogue copy for the Arbus show, written by curator Jeff L. Rosenheim, distinguishes her from photographers like Winogrand and Friedlander because she “sought the poignancy of a direct personal encounter.” Yet encounter implies some sort of exchange, and Arbus seems to withhold everything from her subjects except her attention. Perhaps that is enough. These are people who want to be seen, in all the senses of that word: to be visible, to be acknowledged, to be understood. Whether a Lady on a bus, N.Y.C. 1957 or a Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, L.I. 1959, they often have the carefully-blank stare of professional performers. They either actively don’t see us or her, or they don’t see anything, like the well-known portrait of a Woman on the street with her eyes closed. Often the photographer’s presence is inexplicable: how did she get into Backwards Man’s hotel room? Did she introduce herself and say, “hey, may I come upstairs with you and look at your room?” How weird.

That is not a question one needs to ask of Nan Goldin. It’s obvious that she’s present in her work (the subjects look back at her and at us) and why: she is friends with these struggling and resilient people. Here that direct personal encounter has become a real two-way exchange and it conveys a deeper intimacy between distinct personalities (including Goldin’s) rather than types. In his essay from The New Yorker, Als makes the interesting observation that Goldin photographs the family she chose instead of the one she was born into and celebrates that as a creative act. In contrast, Arbus’s photographs create intimacy without ever implying that her subjects are friends or family. She forces us as viewers to recognize their humanity rather than their individuality. In fact, they are rarely named, but given categorical descriptions like “man,” “child,” or “taxi driver.”

portrThis is not to imply that Arbus’s photographs are generic. Her subjects were there in all their ill-lit, off-center imperfections. She was there. We are here. This is most clear in the photos that foreground someone looking at something within the frame, like the many shots of movie screens in theaters or in Lady in front of a portrait, where a woman in a museum looks at an Old Master painting. That photo prompted the vertiginous awareness that I was a woman in a museum looking at Arbus looking at the woman looking at the painting. Arbus is clearly more interested in the photographed woman than the painted one. Or me. Or herself. There’s a single-mindedness to much of her work that can be arresting, like in this instance. She seems completely unselfconscious even as she makes us aware of the woman and ourselves as viewers.

That heightened sense of awareness of ourselves, of her, of time and place, is underscored by the curatorial decisions about formatting the show. As soon as the familiar elevator doors of the former Whitney open on the second floor something is different. The usual empty “white cube” of the museum space has been filled with individual columns, each bearing a single image at eye-level. It’s like looking at an orchard instead of a mowed lawn. The wall text encourages us to roam around without any scripted order. This is a show about beginnings, it informs us, and we should construct the middles and endings as we go along.

This layout makes conceptual sense as it reflects the improvised and random quality of the photos, but it also makes it easy to miss things. Without the typical museum experience of shuffling past the four squared walls of a room, looking at the images in carefully curated order of appearance, how do we know we’ve seen everything? Sometimes a pairing seems deliberately crafted for us: as when a portrait of clown in a fedora faces an image of an old woman in a hospital bed. The two figures are provocative mirrors of each other, thematically different yet formally and conceptually similar as each pale face presents itself impassively to our gaze. The show ends up feeling like the very photo ops that Arbus documented: what we see is intriguing and charming, but what didn’t we see?

jewishgianthomeThis lack of resolution may explain the ending of “In the Beginning.” In the final two rooms the pattern breaks and we return to a typical white-walled museum format. These rooms place Arbus back in context: contrasting her work with contemporaneous work by her peers and with predecessors like Lisette Model and August Sander. The last room resembles an enclosed white box containing a project from 1970-71 that Arbus called A box of ten photographs. Carefully chosen, they represent some of her best-known images (like A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y., 1970 and those Identical twins, Roselle, N.J., 1967). “It’s like a box of bon bons,” my colleague said as we entered. Although a bit jarring, this return to order and familiarity seems necessary. It’s like pushing the re-set button after wandering in the wilderness, or squaring off a circle. The implicit question of a show about origins is how the early images anticipate the better-known photographs that followed, and this room re-establishes that context, reminding us what we already know and like and struggle with in her body of work.

A show about the origins of an artist’s work is a tricky challenge: it encourages us to see the work on display as preparatory, evolving, not yet ready…. And these images do seem that way. They are not yet Arbus’s best work—not because they are not her best known but because they seem small, tentative, and sometimes vague. She had interests, but not yet a vision, and it’s difficult to trace that vision backwards into the past. But the show doesn’t make huge claims and the organization to break the linear presentation into individual doses seems to reflect the modesty and small scale of the work itself. It’s an admirable effort to rethink how museum exhibits are organized and reshape the viewer’s experience.

Both the Arbus and Goldin exhibits consider narrative closely: what order should the images be in? For the “Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” Goldin curates her own work into a slideshow with a carefully chosen soundtrack. The work is not quite in random order (one can discern fleeting variations on a theme like brides, breasts, or bruises), but it’s not in an obviously structured one either. She neither gives us control of our viewing nor entirely controls it herself. Although the Arbus show is intentionally out of order, Arbus herself was more hands-off. Her photographs are not exactly spontaneous but they are presented with only casually descriptive titles, without stories or sequence. In a recent video for the Met Goldin pit herself against another iconic photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, claiming that there is no “decisive moment” to capture and immortalize. For Goldin, and arguably Arbus, every moment is important and their work doesn’t tear off one slice of life from a narrative so much as it provides a window into a private world we wouldn’t otherwise see.

Robert Frank Don't BlinkDon’t Blink takes neither approach, choosing to represent Frank’s overflowing creativity (in an interview shown in the film he avows his faith in “work”) as orchestrated chaos. Finished photos, texts, notes, annotated contact sheets, and film clips all jostle for dominance within the frame of the film, just as objects and papers and “stuff” of all kinds clutter up his walls, tables, and desks. It’s a compelling vision and director Laura Israel, Frank’s long-time film editor, is a subtle presence, speaking from behind the camera occasionally and even appearing every once in a while. She lets the story, such as it is, unfold organically—we learn about Frank’s personal life only as it begins to show up in his work and she consciously breaks chronology sometimes to circle back to earlier pieces. A filmmaker himself, Frank seems to want to direct this film too. As Israel talks to him in the back seat of a car driving through the tunnel between New York and New Jersey he tells her to end the film with a shot of them emerging into the light on the other side. She doesn’t. Instead we get a much less decisive ending, with Frank exiting a car and leaning in to tell her (and the camera and us), “I’ll see you.”

Like Arbus, Frank is fascinated by film and the documentary watches him watching his own work (which will be the focus of a film festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, August 4-September 22). As he points out, the stillness of photographs make them effective as memories, but it takes moving images to represent anything like life itself. But where Frank turned from photographs to film, Arbus seems to have done the opposite: in many early photos she reduced the larger-than-life figures of film by dragging them off the screen and into the world, then made them even smaller by fixing them on tiny squares of paper. One can see how all three photographers worked against their medium to instill a sense of motion into the work: Frank by shifting into film-making (he especially liked shooting on Super 8 film without sound), Goldin by organizing “The Ballad” as a slideshow, and Arbus by trying to capture the movie still itself.

printUnsurprisingly, all three of these artists now trade in nostalgia. Not just the nostalgia they may have felt at the time, but our nostalgia for all that she took for granted back then: like movie palaces, or even the face to face interaction with the people she photographed in real time, on real film. In our digital world these small black and white images of poseurs and performers can look cute, or even naïve. The colleague I saw the show with described it as a world of “analogue entertainments.” Being at the Met Breuer evoked my own nostalgia for the former Whitney Museum, where I went often with my father, who passed away years ago, and where I went on my first date with the man I’m married to now. My colleague reminisced about the old Museum of Modern Art, where she spent her adolescence mapping a sort of memory palace for the art there. That’s a building I barely remember now. It needed a Goldin to “obsessively record every detail,” as she says about her work on MoMA’s website.

The difficulty with nostalgia is how to avoid romanticizing the past. The differences that Arbus catalogued—along spectrums of gender, sexuality, and bodies especially—were not only relics of the past but lived experiences by real people. If nothing else, her photographs make her subjects and their lives “real” to us. Similarly, any nostalgia for Goldin’s AIDS-era portraits could be unsettling and new generations will come to terms with that history differently—perhaps through Goldin’s representation—than those of us who lived through it. I have first-year college students who look back on the 1980s as a sort of golden age of gay activism and who sometimes need to be reminded of its tragic personal costs. But the risk of glamorizing difference and pain and struggle is hardly a reason not to represent it. In fact, it could be the opposite. Frank’s images of Civil Rights-era America have turned some historical corner that Goldin’s haven’t quite completed yet. Looking at his steely-eyed, guarded subjects, there is no way to romanticize that era.

In the end, the “story” of these artists’ work is neither straightforward nor sequential. Arbus’s early work suggests what will come later but doesn’t exactly explain it. Goldin’s work may be at a turning point as the 1980s retreat further into the past, shared by a fewer and fewer living people. Frank’s documentary shows how the shapes of lives and careers overlap but don’t necessarily coincide. There is something uncanny about being in the presence of all this long-lost life that evokes the Blond on screen about to be kissed, a photograph Arbus took in 1950. We’re waiting for something that already happened. Maybe weird is the right word after all.

Victoria Olsen teaches Expository Writing at New York University. Her most recent essay for Open Letters Monthly was a book review of Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City.