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Diane Arbus: Family AIbums Born to a wealthy Jewish-American family, Diane Arbus (1923-1971)

was raised in affluent surroundings in New York City. Unlike her famous brother, the poet Howard Nemerov, she never attended

college. At age

18

she married the aspiring photographer and actor

Allan Arbus, and during the next twenty years the couple worked as professional photographers for fashion magazines and advertisers, including Russek's Fifth Avenue, the chic department store owned by Arbus s father.

As her marriage began to crumble and her husband more seriously pursued acting, Arbus continued working for fashion and commercial clients but also turned to a different kind of photogra-

phy. Between 1955 and 1957, she studied with Lisette Model and began to develop a penetrating documentary vision, producing

pictures very unlike the work she was doing for advertisers. By

the 1960s, she had gained a reputation as a photographer of New York's many subcultures. By 1967, her pictures were so admired among the New York cognoscenti that she was one of the three

photographers invited to participate in the Museum of Modern Art's New Documenfs show. lt launched her international reputation and career. What was Arbus's documentary vision? ln 1968, three years before her suicide, Arbus wrote that she was compiling her photographs into a "family album," likening itto a "Noah's ark" and perhaps imagining in itthe people who might be remembered and saved in the aftermath of the tumultuous 1960s. "Family," in Arbus's sense, consisted of people held together by all sorts of bonds. some

traditional and others alternative, and deserving of special attention.


This exhibition re-examines Arbus's never-completed project and offers a glimpse into what such an album might have looked like. lt assembles pictures of various kinds of familles and family members and offers Arbus's critical, sometimes humorous, often sympathetic viewing of fathers, mothers, children, and partners' ln addition, it includes the contact sheets for six different portrait sessions and reveals Arbus's working methods and selection process as she aimed to find appropriate subjects for her ark' ln all' Diane Arbus: Family Atbums proposes a new way to understand the concerns and qoals of this most important American photographer'

Mothers

Arbus took a wide range of pictures of mothers, a key figure in most family albums. With good reason: mothers help secure the notion ol

"family," and by their mere presence cohere the many disparate photographs that make up an album. The women Arbus photographed in the 1960s include some whose notoriety derived from

their status as mothers: Marguerite 0swald, the mother of Lee

Diane Arbus. Blaze Starr at

h0me,1964. Copyright O Estate of Diane Arbus, 1965. Esquire Collection, Spencer Museum of Art, the University of Kansas


Diane Arbus, Madalyn Murray

in her bedroon,1964. Copyright

O

Estate of Diane Arbus, 1964.

Esquire Collection, Spencer Museum of Art, the University oI Kansas

Harvey 0swald, the alleged assassin of President John

F.

Kennedy,

and Madalyn Murray, the petitioner who successfully challenged compulsory school prayer on behalf of her son. ln the case of Murray, Arbus explored the famed atheist's

relationship with her two sons and to the home in which they lived, photographing Murray on a big sofa, in her kitchen, living room, bedroom, and outside her front door. These pictures explored Murray's role as a mother and perhaps even suggested how the small house became a refuge for her and her family, especially when they were besieged by the local and national press.

0ther "mother" pictures interrogated the matriarchal demeanor, like that of Flora Knapp Dickinson, an Honorary Regent of

the Daughters of the American Revolution, and Mrs.

T. Charlton

Henry, the noted socialite and fashion luminary. Still other photo-

graphs-of the stripper Blaze Starr, the sexy film star Mae West, the wartime personality Tokyo Rose-explored how women, not normally associated with motherhood, could appear more maternal in their own domestic settings.


Fathers

What constituted fatherhood in the lg60s? Arbus's many pictures of fathers, patriarchs, and famous men were made when this ques-

tion was being regularly asked. Typical of Arbus's interests and sensibilities as a photographer, she sought out men whose claims on fatherhood derived from different forms of authority and public

presence. Representative father figures included Bennett Cerf, president of the publishing firm Random House; Donald Gatch,

a

southern physician whose causes were receiving national attention; the midget Andrew Batoucheff, who was married five times and performed onstage as, alternately, Marilyn Monroe and Maurice Chevalier; and the writer Norman Mailer.

Children

The mother of two young girls, Arbus was confronted daily with the needs. experiences, and desires of children. In addition, she often

photographed children, buttoned in the latest fashlons. for magazine ads and spent hours dressing and posing them for her camera. As

sitters, they provided Arbus with an especially provocative and challenging subject, at once filled with their own visions and understandings of a world in transition, and yet also serving as receptacles for the longings and dreams of others.

Diane Arbus, King and Aueen of a Senior

Citizens'Dance, N. Y C., 1970. Copyright O Estate of Diane Arbus,1970. Esquire Collectlon,

Spencer Museum of Art, the University 0f Ka

nsas


ti:lli,ffi :.:)

Diane Arbus,

Robert Evans

and his family, 1968" Copyright

@ Estate of Diane Arbus, 1965, Esquire Colle ction,

Spencer Museum of Art,

the University of Ka

Partnership is key to the bonds that hold families together, but

nsas

Partners

Arbus's desire to interrogate and chart the changing family led her

to photograph several unusual sets of partners: a married couple who lived as nudists, a Santa Claus with his "real" wife in his "real" home, and Lillian and Dorothy Gish, the two deeply attached sisters

who earlier in their lives had been silent film stars.

Perhaps the most difficult, yet key photographs for Arbus's album

were images of families whose bonds were more traditional. Held together by marriage, blood, and law, these kinds of families fell under scrutiny and were often dismissed as anachronistic by the countercultures and alternative collectives of the '1960s. With her camera, Arbus asked which aspects of these more traditional families could survive. What bonds of affection could remain intact?

Families


What forms of community could be gleaned from them? 0r, conversely, what final ves-

tiges of an earlier family life needed farewell? 0ne set of previously unknown family photographs reveals how Arbus worked through these questions. ln late 1969, Arbus photographed the Konrad Matthaei family in

their New York townhouse. Matthaei was

a

well-known television actor and theater owner and his family-surrounded by celebrity and media attention-was just the sort to which Arbus was often drawn. For

two days, she followed the family around the townhouse, recording meals. family arriving for holiday dinner, the children playing with newtoys. Arbus removed obstructing objects and positioned herself and her subjects carefully, taking an astonishing 322 photographs, roughly one every

two minutes. The contact sheets from this session, as well as others presented in this exhibltion, provide insight into Arbus's methods and choices as she worked toward the

idea of 'Jfamily album."

Diane Arbus, Untitled contact sheet, detail, 1969.

Matthaei Family Collection @ Marcella Hague Matthaei Ziesmann

This brochure is produced bythe Mount Holyoke College Art Museum and the Spencer Museum ofArt,

the university of Kansas. Reproduction oI Esquire photographs by Diane Arbus is authorized by the Spencer Museum of Diane Arbus.

ofArtto promote the exhibition in accordance with the License granted bythe

Estate

Diane Arbus: Family Albums  

This brochure was produced by the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum and the Spencer Museum of Art, the University of Kansas, which also organ...

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