Shotgun Reviews

Diane Arbus: In the Beginning at SFMOMA

Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Max Blue reviews Diane Arbus: In the Beginning at SFMOMA.

Diane  Arbus. Female  impersonator  holding  long  gloves,  Hempstead,  L.I., 1959. Courtesy  The Metropolitan  Museum  of Art. © The  Estate  of Diane  Arbus,  LLC.

Diane Arbus. Female Impersonator Holding Long Gloves, Hempstead, L.I., 1959. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC.

Diane Arbus: In the Beginning is a meandering, somewhat maudlin journey through the subterranean layers of “unusual” midcentury American society. An endearing lack of mastery over the medium is apparent in the quality of the photographs, and it is important to note that the work constituting the majority of the exhibition (with the exception of a few canonical medium-format prints) is on display for the first time.[1]

Every canonical artist carries critical baggage. Arbus’ ethical intentions have been critically deemed exploitative[2], and the exhibition does very little to suggest an alternative perspective, as it does not reevaluate or grow the artist’s repertoire and only adds to its mass. With that in mind, the work that stood out to me is a scattered series of drive-in movie and movie-theater screens, taken mid-film, capturing an often-blurred moment of the cinematic narrative. While static portraits of circus clowns and peculiarly marked headstones strike a dissonant chord (curiously juxtaposed with numerous photographs of “female impersonators,” suggesting that these gender-queer individuals are to be considered among the grotesque), the frozen film stills speak much more evocatively to depiction and viewership as a dynamic relation. Many of the stills contain a horrific quality, such as a man being strangled, or a woman bleeding from her eyes. Arbus explores the representation of the macabre (as opposed to her greater body of work, which appears to be largely concerned with naming it as such). This work feels like the seed of Arbus’ inquiry into the representation of the surreal.


Several short quotes by Arbus herself are peppered throughout the exhibition in the form of wall text, the most striking of which was: “My favorite thing is to go where I’ve never been.” This quote is meant to illustrate an adventurous and free-spirited character, which perhaps Arbus was, in her own way. Leaving the exhibition and stepping into the streets of the Tenderloin, I am struck by the realization that to go where one has never been is a great privilege—which entails leaving behind where one has been. Arbus photographed those who inhabited the places she had “never been,” taking a memento of them away with her (one which eventually became commodified), while those same individuals did not share the same privilege of mobility, whether trapped in poverty, in a body they didn’t identify with, or on the silver screen.

Diane Arbus: In the Beginning is on view at SFMOMA through April 30, 2017.

Max Blue is in his third year at the San Francisco Art Institute, working toward a BA in the History & Theory of Contemporary Art, with a minor in Photography. He is a poet and critical-theory enthusiast.

[1] “Diane Arbus: In the Beginning” (exhibition summary), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, accessed March 4, 2017, https://www.sfmoma.org/exhibition/diane-arbus-beginning/.

[2] Susan Sontag, “Freak Show,” New York Review of Books, November 15, 1973.

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