Diane Arbus’ work is mostly centric to New York, where she was born and died. Whether it be: riding the subway, backstage at a drag show, at the back of a sketchy movie theatre or in a squat on the Lower East Side; Arbus was there between the mid-1950s and early 1970s to capture moments and create some of the most intimate, nostalgic and startling photographs of the twentieth century.

Organised by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and adapted for Hayward Gallery, ‘Diane Arbus: in the beginning’ is a comprehensive view at the forgetive first half of Arbus’ career as an independent photographer (mostly between 1956 – 1962) following over a decade in the fashion photography business. It is during these first years which the photographer developed that direct, psychologically acute style for which she later became so widely celebrated.

Filled with odd encounters with often stranger subjects and understated moments in people’s lives that seem so special through her lens, Arbus made photographs that didn’t diminish subjects to a role. In fact, quite the contrary, she makes everyone exceptional – even if she only met them for as long as it took to take a picture.

Life spills from her work in ways comparable to photographers like August Sander, Larry Clark or fellow New Yorker Bruce Gilden. Often sparking curiosity and leaving the viewer with more questions than answers, her work teases our imagination enough that we crave the need to invent backstories we could never substantiate, as such, sometimes it’s better to just stop and look, just as Arbus herself did.

The exhibition itself is brilliantly designed too, the upper gallery of the Hayward is a meticulous maze of pillars with prints framed and hanging from the broader face on either side. Each image is somewhat come across by chance and as you weave through the pillars and are exposed to different subjects, it becomes easier to put yourself in Arbus’ shoes and continually imagine the lives and narratives that might exist behind these encounters.


‘Diane Arbus: in the beginning’ runs from 13 FEB – 6 MAY 2019 at the Hayward Gallery in London.


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