Diane Arbus: A Moment of Truth

by Janine C. Grant

Junger Mann mit Lockenwicklern zu Hause in der West 20th Street, N.Y.C., 1966

A young man in curlers at home on West 20th Street, N.Y.C. 1966  © The Estate of Diane Arbus

Treading the cobblestone streets during my recent visit to Berlin, my travel mates and I felt as though we were being watched.  From billboards and lampposts, a black and white image of a transvestite with penciled high arching eyebrows, hair in curlers and eyes caught in midsentence, stared us down and convinced us not to miss the Diane Arbus exhibit at the Martin-Gropius-Bau.

The Martin-Gropius-Bau museum itself should not be missed.  Abutted against fragments of the Berlin Wall, and beautifully remolded after almost being left for ruin from World War II, this museum holds a rich history.  Inside, white marble and natural light make it a calm place of respite after the Berlin nightlife.  Before heading upstairs, we stopped into the museum café for a glass of port. The setting prompts such extravagance.

Identische Zwillinge, Roselle, N.J., 1967Identical twins, Roselle, N.J. 1967 © The Estate of Diane Arbus

Once within the Diane Arbus exhibit, however, we realized just how important that glass of port truly was.  The exhibit, running from June 22nd till September 23rd, presents two hundred photographs, some which have never before been publicly exhibited.  The black and white images were not organized chronologically or thematically but instead presented singularly, demarcated only by Arbus’ own title for each piece.  The museum wished for the viewer to “… encounter the images much as the photographer encountered her subjects: directly and unencumbered by preconceptions.”

Each photograph, true to Arbus’ style, captivated you in a way that made it impossible to skim.  Arbus said, “My Favorite thing is to go where I’ve never been,” and her images took you with her.  Arbus has the rare gift of capturing a moment that invites you to fall into the picture.  You find, while standing in front of an image, an intense personal connection in the eyes or movement of the person caught in their moment of being.  This is what touched me most:  Each photograph was like plucking a moment of truth, presenting it to you in a way that no matter how exotic the image may be, you are able to recognize that moment in yourself.

Ohne Titel (6) 1970–71Untitled (6) 1970–71 © The Estate of Diane Arbus

The deep personal connection Arbus was able to forge through the lens gave her access to images full of secrets. They are raw.  They move you beyond wondering who that person is, and instead forces you to question what has made them who they are.  In this sense, as Arbus spoke so poignantly, “A photograph is a secret about a secret.  The more it tells you the less you know.”

Diane Arbus is known for making what is freakish, normal and what is normal, strange and this was definitely apparent in all of her images. What resonated most with me was how much her images made me feel okay to be myself in whatever way I wanted to be.  Diane Arbus was able to capture a glance in her subjects that recognized the pure humanity in you the viewer.  The museum accomplished what it set out to do, and after falling into the lives of two hundred strangers we were exhausted; immediately we went to Kreuzberg for a Kreuzburger.

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