Diane Arbus: Untitled Photographs 1970–1971

Photographs from the final two years of Diane Arbus’s life will be on view at Fraenkel Gallery, 55 Grant Avenue, San Francisco, from January 14 though February 28, 1987. The exhibition is comprised of fourteen photographs, only half of which have ever been published. This will be the first time that these photographs have been exhibited together.

Throughout her career, Diane Arbus was intrigued by anomaly and eccentricity, by groups involved in what she referred to as “the considerable ceremonies of our present.” These photographs, made at a home for retarded adults in Vineland, New Jersey are a synthesis and culmination of her fifteen years as a photographer. In her late work one feels an intense and deep pathos. It is about human limits, about fundamental questions of identity and truth, self and other, of meaning and purpose. Of some of her earliest, personal work, pictures which from the beginning examined the nature of those human mechanisms of personal identity, Arbus wrote:

“These are six singular people who appear like metaphors somewhere further out than we do, beckoned, not driven, invented by belief, author and hero of a real dream by which our own courage and cunning are tested and tried; so that we may wonder all over again what is veritable and inevitable and possible and what it is to become whoever we may be.”

There is a certain darkness to most of Arbus’ work, but nowhere is this more apparent than in her last pictures. Issues of what is conventional or not were completely dismissed, and in choosing individuals living at one of the extreme edges of the rational as her theme, Arbus transcended the particular for a far more universal inquiry into human nature. In these pictures of retarded people out-of-doors and under gray skies, the controlled order of the pictures, its careful pictorial balance, and the sense of confronting the subjects is totally gone. A bizarre choreography of address seems to be taking place before the artist’s camera, a hieroglyphics of communication that we cannot begin to understand. But while strange, there is also a warmth to the scene, and a simplicity of affectless behavior that impresses by its essential humanity. The pathos revealed is certainly not theirs; it is, if anything, ours.

As the critic Peter Bunnell has written, “Arbus’s pictures are very difficult to stay out of. In fact, it seems to me, that what disturbs people more than the subject of these pictures, is the intensity of their power to dominate us, to literally stop us in mid-life and demand we ask ourselves who we are.”