“A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.” – Diane Arbus
Photography holds a power unlike anything else. It enriches the way we live and forces us to think differently about the world around us. It can transform a smoking “female impersonator” in curlers into the everyday and a set of menacing twins into the exceptional. It contradicts your certainties, and creeps into your inveterate fears. It has the ability to render the familiar, unfamiliar; conversely, it can transform the unfamiliar into the familiar.
On a sunny Sunday afternoon I walked into the white, architectural maze that is SFMOMA. Wandering up the pristine, evenly-spaced wooden stairs I stepped away from the general collection of Calders and Rothkos and into the world of New York’s freak show imagery in diane arbus: in the beginning. Featuring works from 1956-62, the exhibition walks you through the first seven years of Arbus’ career. It begins with photographs taken primarily on 35mm cameras, and then onto her most distinctively recognizable square prints with the Rolleiflex.
The prints are smaller than expected, meaning you have to almost press your nose up to the frame’s glass to satisfy what feels like a perverted sense of intrigue in these eerie images. This subtlety gives the viewing experience an almost voyeuristic feel. You are looking into a world that is not your own, a world of the past, a world of the misfits, a world that makes you question your own morality, your judgements and your identity.
This was a lot to take on, especially since the gallery was crowded. As people shuffled around me like pigeons, I felt the claustrophobia of an unreality surround me. A child in blackface. An overweight elderly woman in a shower. A little girl with a pointed hat reminiscent of KKK garments. A dissected corpse. A wax model of James Dean. A sword swallower holding a baby. A stern woman in fur. These images swirled around me in a dizzy kaleidoscope of black and white. Even the Disneyland castle had a sinister weight to it. Arbus seems to find comfort in exposing the freaks, but perhaps she, too, was a kind a freak herself. It is as if, alongside these people, she looks unto the human race as an outsider.
Each photograph evokes an odd synthesis of emotions: love, guilt, fear, confusion, uncertainty. As I stare into each one, it is as if I am stepping into a deeply empathetic yet dark mind. They are not pretty; instead they are grainy, sometimes ugly, often out-of-focus confrontations with real life. Arbus forces us to bear witness. She demands that we see the unspeakable.
As I walk through the final tunnel of images back towards the sun-dappled stairs, I am reminded of Arbus’ death less than ten years after these final images were made. The burden of loss and misunderstanding echoes in the grey of each image, transforming a toy hand grenade in the hands of a young boy into a secret waiting to explode. The ordinary becomes extraordinary. Wandering back through the streets of San Francisco I seek those same secrets that Arbus captured decades ago hidden beneath the anonymous faces that pass by me.
This exhibition is on view at the SFMOMA until April 30, 2017.
Image copyright The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC, from the SFMOMA website.