The Transformative Nature of the Photographs of Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus’s portfolio “A Box of Ten Photographs” was pivotal in the acceptance of photography by the art world. A book published by Aperture and the Smithsonian American Art Museum examines the portfolio and its impact.

 

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Diane Arbus at a Rhode Island School of Design seminar in 1970. Credit Stephen A. Frank, Courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery

By James Estrin

 

John P. Jacob first saw Diane Arbus’s work in 1980 while taking a college photo class to help him in his chosen career of architectural preservation. The effect of her images was so powerful that he dreamed about them every night for the next week. He then decided to dedicate his life to photography, eventually becoming the curator of photography at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Neil Selkirk was a young photographer assisting Richard Avedon on a portrait shoot of Anjelica Huston at her father’s London apartment when he first encountered one of Ms. Arbus’s images on the wall. He was unaware of her at the time — 1969 — but he was “completely devastated” by the image of three overweight nude people in a field. It transformed how he looked at the world.

Her images brought Mr. Jacob and Mr. Selkirk together in the making of “Diane Arbus: A Box of Ten Photographs,” published recently by Aperture and the Smithsonian American Art Museum to accompany an exhibition at the museum. Mr. Jacob wrote the essay for the book and curated the exhibition, which runs through January. Mr. Selkirk, who is the only person to have printed Ms. Arbus’s negatives since her death in 1971, was a source for Mr. Jacob.

“A woman with her baby monkey, N.J. 1971.”CreditThe Estate of Diane Arbus

The book recreates the experience of Ms. Arbus’s limited edition portfolio, “A Box of Ten Photographs,” which she began in 1969.

Housed in a clear Plexiglass container, the original portfolios included 16 x 20 inch black-and-white prints, separated by Vellum sheets with Ms. Arbus’s handwritten descriptions of her subjects. The photos included some of her best-known images, like the identical twin girls, the Jewish giant and a young man in curlers. The portfolio was a limited edition of 50, but she had printed only eight and sold four before her death. Mr. Selkirk printed the remaining editions for her estate.

Although Ms. Arbus is among the most famous photographers of the 20th century and many of her images are familiar, Mr. Jacob said her work was still difficult to encounter. It’s not because her subjects included people on society’s margins, but because we approach them burdened by the details of her troubled life and suicide at the age of 48.

An original portfolio.

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