An installation view of “Diane Arbus: In the Beginning,” an exhibition at The Met Breuer. Credit Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times
Like many driven artists, Diane Arbus was a pitiless self-editor and a liberal self-documenter. The editor produced exactingly hard-won images, now classics of American 20th-century photography. The documenter saved every shred of preparatory matter that went into making those images: research files, handwritten notes, rejected alternatives and old experiments on which new work was built.
After her suicide at 48 in 1971, Arbus’s family found boxes filled with such material in her Manhattan apartment, including a cache of unpublished photographs from the late 1950s, when she officially began her career as an independent artist. In 2007, her daughters, Doon Arbus and Amy Arbus gave all of this to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is showing a selection of about 100 early pictures, most for the first time, in “Diane Arbus: In the Beginning” at the Met Breuer.
The presentation, conceived by Jeff L. Rosenheim, curator in charge of the Met’s department of photographs, is terrific: taut and moody, with a kind of offbeat format the museum rarely attempts in its Fifth Avenue headquarters. You walk off the Met Breuer’s second-floor elevators and in place of the usual introductory advertising, you face a wall of floor-to-ceiling partition-style columns stretching across the gallery, with further rows, layer on layer, behind it receding into darkness. Each column is hung, front and back, with a single photograph.
The effect is architectural, like a structure composed entirely of doors, and nondirective. The pictures, all made between 1956 and 1962, are arranged neither by date nor by theme. So you start where you want, and any choice is the right one. The first row of panels includes, in nonchronological order, a blurry 1956 image of a newspaper lying on a sidewalk; a 1957 shot of an imperious matron, encased in fur, sitting on a city bus and staring icily at the camera; and a 1959 backstage portrait of a bare-chested drag queen prepping for a show.
And from 1960 come three pictures. One is of an encounter, playful but aggressive, between two city kids who look weirdly adult. In another, a glum bear of a guy wearing undershorts, black socks and a rakish hat stands, as if stripped down for a fight, on a Coney Island beach. In a third, a homeless man in a municipal shelter holds up a dollar bill as if he were trying to shield his face with it.