Not to Miss at SFMOMA, diane arbus: in the beginning

“They are the proof that something was there and no longer is. Like a stain.  . . . You can turn away but when you come back they’ll still be there looking at you” writes Diane Arbus in a 1971 letter to Davis Pratt, as she responds to his request for a brief statement about photographs. She emphasizes the importance of temporality in her art and underlines the tension between the fleeting versus the eternal. The exhibit of diane arbus: in the beginning at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art precisely explicates this notion of temporality in not only Arbus’ art but also in her emergence as the famous photographer that we know today, 46 years after her death.

diane arbus: in the beginning, organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, features Arbus’ early work from 1956 to 1962. The collection provides insight into her development as an artist, as it displays her transition from 35mm to her iconic square format. The collection includes more than a hundred photographs from the artist, highlighting her inherent love for the marginal, eccentric, and “commonplace” in her subject matter.

in the beginning is a collection of particularities that come together in a coherent whole and paint Diane Arbus as a unique and iconic artist. In most of her work, she depicts fleeting moments in Times Square, the Lower East Side, and Coney Island that might be easily overlooked by a passerby. Yet, the viewer is mesmerized by the intensity and uniqueness of the scene and the subject when seen through Diane Arbus’s lens. In contrast to the self-explanatory titles that she chooses for her works, such as Female impersonator holding long gloves, her photographs rather present a set of unanswered questions and mysteries. Each of her photographs has a unique story behind it, and she captures its climax in her frame.

The exhibit also displays the collection of her only portfolio, “A Box of Ten Photographs” in a gallery. Most of the photographs are from late 1960s and feature her iconic square format. For instance, A Jewish Giant at Home with his Parents in the Bronx, N.Y., 1970 and Mexican Dwarf in his Hotel Room in N. Y. C., 1970 present a binary that is symbolic of both the extremity and the inclusiveness of her subject matter. Her contrasts take place not only on a visual level, but also on an ideological one. She includes her photographs of both Boy with a Straw Hat Waiting to March in a Pro-War Parade, N.Y.C., 1967 and A Young Man in Curlers at Home on West 20th Street, N. Y. C., 1966 in her portfolio, reiterating the fact that her subject matter spans from one extreme to the other.

Just as Diane Arbus considers her photographs to be the proof of the existence of a particular moment or a character that she has encountered in her life, the subjects of her photographs as well as the photographs themselves are proof of her as an artist and her success. Just as she has pursued photography to make moments eternal, her art has rightfully made her eternal in return.

in the beginning will be on exhibit on the third floor of SFMOMA until April 30th.