Diane Arbus Photographs, 1956 – 1971

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“I would like to photograph everybody.”

—Diane Arbus, 1960

In 15 short years, from 1956 to 1971, American photographer Diane Arbus (1923 – 71) produced one of the most compelling and demanding bodies of work in portraiture in the 20th century. She revolutionized not only the portrait genre, but the medium of photography more broadly. The New York-based artist made her indelible mark in two ways: first, with the range of people she photographed and, second, for the ways in which she photographed them. She depicted both the powerful and those overlooked by mainstream society, in a crisp and direct style that became her hallmark.

In Diane Arbus: Photographs, 1956 – 1971, the full sweep of Arbus’ career unfolds chronologically, from her early, intimately-scaled explorations to the sharply-focused portraits of her most well-known work. Her extraordinary subjects—couples, children, nudists, suburban families, circus performers, celebrities, and so many others—reveal a diverse range of humanity, all distinguished by their singularity. Arbus was moved to describe these differences, in her photographs, in as clear-eyed and precise a way as she could.

In 1956, Arbus marked a roll of 35mm film and its accompanying contact sheet with the number 1. She also enrolled in a photography class taught by Lisette Model, the Swiss photographer who arrived in New York City in 1938. Arbus later recalled, “It was my teacher, Lisette Model, who finally made it clear to me that the more specific you are, the more general it’ll be….” These early photographs—by turns mysterious, grainy, frank—explore various New York locales and subcultures, from the city’s morgue to Coney Island to the Grand Opera Ball. She published her first photo essays in Esquire (1960) and Harper’s Bazaar (1961), and both are featured in the exhibition, along with photographs related to the published portraits.

From 1962, Arbus primarily used a 2 1⁄4-inch Rolleiflex camera, which produced a distinct square image. This shift to a larger format camera marked her emergence as a mature artist. In the decade that followed, she found her subjects at ballroom dance competitions and in nudist camps, at a Santa Claus school and in Washington Square Park, and of course on the streets of New York. Arbus created many of her most iconic works in these years, including Puerto Rican woman with a beauty mark, N.Y.C., 1965 and Identical twins, Roselle, N.J., 1966.

Diane Arbus: Photographs, 1956 – 1971 features 150 photographs from a landmark collection donated to the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2016. It is the first solo exhibition of the artist’s work in Canada in nearly three decades and introduces her groundbreaking and singular vision to a new generation.

Curated by Sophie Hackett