Diane Arbus: Photographs, 1956-1971
Diane Arbus, A woman with her baby monkey, N.J. 1971, gelatin silver print. Art Gallery of Ontario. Gift of Jay Smith, 2016. Copyright © The Estate of Diane Arbus.

Diane Arbus: Photographs, 1956-1971

Contemporary Calgary, Calgary, AB - To Sep 17

by Michael Turner

Diane Arbus is arguably the best-known photographer of the 20th century, through a body of work so distinct as to constitute its own sub-genre. Online searches routinely show her near the top of lists that include Ansel Adams and Eve Arnold. Yet whereas Adams electrified his landscapes and Arnold humanized her celebrities, Arbus aligned what we avert our eyes from with what we fear is there. For Arbus, fear resided in what was forbidden. And what was forbidden in post-war America was difference.

The periodic range of this exhibition (organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario) is relevant: 1956 marks the halfway point between the 1945 dropping of atom bombs on Imperial Japan and the 1967 Summer of Love, a time of harmony and transcendence (Arbus passed away in 1971). 1956 is also the year Arbus left a successful commercial design practice to participate in the ostensibly non-conforming world of visual art. Her first attempts at street photography show an artist in search of her subject. Only after taking a class with Vienna-born photographer Lisette Model was Arbus encouraged to act on her darker impulses.

Fifteen years is a relatively short artistic career when compared to many better-known photographers, but the years in which Arbus was making pictures were extraordinary. Her eeriest pictures of twins, nudists and circus performers often upset a population that took its cues from Doris Day and Father Knows Best (1954-60). A more dialectical appreciation of Arbus’ work has her contributing to a world where difference is no longer scorned but celebrated.


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