Diane Arbus (1923–1971) once said “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know…” The same could be said about Arbus herself. Although this enigmatic photographer has become one of the world’s most influential artists, considerable mystery surrounds her controversial work. Now a 200 picture retrospective at Paris’ Jeu de Paume, including two library-like rooms with notebooks, cameras, contact sheets, books from her home and studio and family pictures, provides some new insights.
In this first major retrospective in France, Jeu de Paume presents all of the artist’s iconic photographs as well as many that have never been publicly exhibited. Arbus revolutionized her medium becoming a much imitated photographer. Her bold photographic approach and subject matter produced a body of work that is often shocking in its steadfast celebration of things as they are.
Arbus became famous for her black and white square photographs of marginal people while picturing the strangeness in normalcy. In 1972, a year after she committed suicide, Arbus was the first American photographer to have photographs displayed at the Venice Biennale. Millions of people viewed traveling exhibitions of her work in 1972–1979. In 2003–2006, Arbus and her work were the subjects of another major traveling exhibition, “Diane Arbus Revelations.” In 2006, the motion picture “Fur” starring Nicole Kidman as Arbus, presented a fictional version of her life story
Arbus found most of her subjects in New York City, a place that she explored as both a known geography and as a foreign land, photographing people she discovered during the 1950s and 1960s. She was committed to photography as a medium that tangles with the facts. Her contemporary anthropology—portraits of couples, carnival performers, nudists, middle-class families, transvestites, zealots, eccentrics, and celebrities—stands as an allegory of the human experience, an exploration of the relationship between appearance and identity, illusion and belief, theater and reality.
Diane Arbus, to Feb 5, 2012, Jeu de Paume, 1, place de la Concorde, 75008, Paris, Metro Concorde.