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At SFMOMA, the many faces of Diane Arbus

Mills College Weekly

First, a word of warning: do not attempt to see an exhibit at
the SFMOMA when Chagall is showing upstairs.

After an hour standing in the sun, stepping a couple feet
forward every five minutes, I reluctantly forsook my place in the
line to get into the crowded San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. I
hung my head, and decided I would not see the Diane Arbus
photography exhibit that was opening that Saturday.

As I wandered past the hoard of people to the front, for one
final look, I stared longingly and desperately at the door where a
group of pre-purchased yellow ticket-holders were being ushered
into the air-conditioned lobby when a woman tapped me on the
shoulder. A ticket was handed to me; she had an extra, she said,
and I was driven, wide-eyed and inside with the rest of them.

What luck.

To the fourth floor I went, braving a small bout with another
line I had mistakenly placed myself in (seriously, wait until the
Chagall exhibit is over), until I reached the large gray entrance
to the exhibit I had been assigned to write about. Diane Arbus:
Revelations. The largest collection of Arbus’ work ever

Diane Arbus is a world renowned photographer who, until her
death in 1971, captured the lives of people in New York City in the
1950’s and 60’s. According to Sandra S. Phillips, the museum’s
senior coordinator of photography who spoke at the opening day
lecture, Arbus’ work serves “as an allegory of the human

“I wanted to photograph the considerable ceremonies of our
present,” Diane Arbus explained in her project proposal for the
John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship (this is all
written on the museum wall) in 1963. “Because we tend, while living
here and now, to perceive only what is random and between and
formless about it…”

Every one of her pictures is a story, with titles that give
clues to what she finds intriguing about the moment she has made

“Bishop by the Sea.” An old woman in a white gown, her shawl
flying in the wind, holding a cross in hands outstretched as if she
were about to hug you. “Girl in a Shiny Dress.” She is laughing,
leaning forward so that her dress has slipped down provocatively.
“Muscle Man in his Dressing Room with Trophy.” Scary bulges in all
the right places.

A photograph of a woman, facing the camera, holding a briefcase
and a purse in her right hand. The title below it says “Women with
briefcase and pocketbook.”

Standing in front of the framed picture, I listen as a lady with
a lobster barrette in her hair comments under her breath. “What
pocketbook?” Two old women next to her join in the dialogue. They
are from the east coast, and over there a purse is a called
pocketbook. They keep chatting and I look back at the picture.

But what is she doing with the purse? The title doesn’t tell you
anything. Arbus’ only answer to our questions is a small
description, “a lady with a briefcase and purse,” and it leaves us
wanting more.

But in the end, you come to the last room of the exhibition,
words line the exit and you read them as you step out of Arbus’
gallery: “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it
tells you the less you know.”

And so you make up the stories yourself in your own head. You
connect them to your world, to what you are doing. Or to what
you’ve seen done. Or to what you imagine. To what you understand
about life. It’s all a mystery, but the mystery becomes beautiful
when Arbus shows it to you that way.

Dispersed in Arbus’s more popular photographs are works that are
less known, some never exhibited, suggesting a linear progression
of artistic creativity that isn’t easily observed without seeing
the creations that came in between.

Included in the exhibition are pages from her notebooks; the
thoughts scrawled in ink give you an insight into her aspirations
for capturing the small moments of life. A recorded dream she had
opens the gallery, about a burning hotel and her flailing attempt
at recording it all: “whole life is there. It’s a sort of calm but
painfully blocked ecstasy like when a baby is coming and the
attendants ask you to hold back because they aren’t ready.”

In one of these journal entries (I found it in a catalog pasted
to a table at the exit) she records a conversation overheard at her
exhibition in 1967.

Man: She jots down what he says. “They’re nothing.”

Woman: “What?”

Man: “Nothing. I could go out and do the same thing.”

Woman: “Well why don’t you?”

Man: “You don’t think I could?”

Woman: “I believe you, I just want to see you do it.”

Man: “So you think that’s good photography?”

Diane Arbus knew exactly what she was doing. She, as an artist,
does not mold her art. Her subjects are not extraordinary. Their
lives do not command our attention. Arbus simply captures these
people, and presents their life as a snapshot to us- with that,
the stage is set for revelation.

The Diane Arbus exhibit will be at the SFMOMA until Feb. 8,