Cover image of the review

Diane Arbus: American Portraits

2 Jun 2018
Heide Museum of Modern Art 21 Mar - 17 Jun 2018

“You can’t take any photos”, I was told at the front desk. The request was unexpected, as restrictions of this kind for an exhibition seemed slightly dated considering how accessible and abundant images have become in our digitally soaked, super-sharing culture – not to mention how widely available many of the images seen in the exhibition are online. Was this just a cautionary move to avoid the typical copyright hole on the grounds of image reproduction rights? It seemed a little heavy handed, as the same logic applied to the marketing of the exhibition. In the foyer, for example, there is no promotional image, only the title displayed in bold, white lettering. There lies a sweet irony in this as the exhibition stages some of the most iconic images in the history of twentieth century photography.

Diane Arbus, Child with toy hand grenade, in Central Park, New York City, 1962, gelatin silver photograph, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Purchased 1980.

The photographer responsible is Diane Arbus. At Heide Museum, a touring exhibition organised by the National Gallery of Australia, curated by Anne O’Hehir, simply titled Diane Arbus: American Portraits, features 36 photographs taken during her last decade of life, between 1961 and 1971. This collection, acquired in the lead up to the opening of the NGA in 1982, is one of the largest public holdings of prints made by Arbus herself outside New York. Although billed as a solo exhibition, eight other American photographers sit amongst the rare vintage Arbus prints. A curatorial manoeuvre I would argue that highlights just how distinctive and unique Arbus is as a photographer for both her style and subject matter. Yet the inclusion of work by iconic photographers Walker Evans, Weegee and Lisette Model, by Arbus’ contemporaries William Klein, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander and Milton Rogovin, as well as pictures by the slightly younger William Eggleston and Mary Ellen Mark also permits the opportunity to see the ways in which they each used the camera to reflect upon and transform the world around them during the American post-war era.

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