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Diane Arbus: Family Albums

 

Diane Arbus: Family Albums sheds new light on the working process of the influential American photographer Diane Arbus (1923­1971).  On view at the Portland Museum of Art from June 5 to August 1, 2004, the exhibition features more than 50 black-and-white photographs along with 57 contact sheets by the artist, a large number of which have never been publicly exhibited. The first museum exhibition devoted to her work since her posthumous retrospective in 1972, Diane Arbus: Family Albums reveals Arbus's fascination with the complex and often contradictory notions of "family" that surfaced during the turbulent 1960s. The exhibition was organized by the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas, and by the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum."This is the first time that audiences in Maine will have an opportunity to examine Arbus's controversial work in depth," notes Portland Museum of Art curator Susan Danly. "The Museum is pleased to present prints that may be familiar as well as working proofs that have never been seen by the public." (right: Diane Arbus (United States, 1923-1971), "Jayne Mansfield Cimber-Ottaviano, actress, with her daughter, Jayne Marie, thirteen," 1965. Copyright © Estate of Diane Arbus, 1965. Esquire Collection, Spencer Museum of Art, the University of Kansas)

An important collection of previously unknown contact sheets and prints produced by the artist serves as the impetus for, and nucleus of, Family Albums. In 1969 Arbus was commissioned by Konrad Matthaei, an actor in the long-running soap opera As the World Turns and owner of the prosperous Alvin Theater, to shoot portraits of his wife, Gay, and their three children, Marcella, Leslie, and Konrad Jr. The two-day shoot took place at the Matthaei's elegant Upper East Side townhouse during a family Christmas gathering. The resulting 322 images, 200 of which are represented in the 28 contact sheets that Arbus gave to the Matthaeis, provide valuable insights into the artist's photographic strategies. They reveal a family accustomed to the spotlight of celebrity, but also vulnerable to Arbus's inquisitive eye. Nothing was known of the Matthaei shoot until the fall of 1999, when Gay, a Holyoke alumna, and her oldest daughter, Marcella, came forward with the prints and contacts, and offered them on loan to the Mount Holyoke College Museum of Art.

Born into a wealthy family, Diane Arbus grew up and spent her professional life in Manhattan. She started out as a fashion photographer with her then-husband, Alan Arbus, working for magazines like Vogue and Glamour in the 1950s. Once on her own, she shot portraits for Esquire . Between 1955 and 1957, she studied with Lisette Model and began to develop a penetrating documentary vision, producing pictures very different from her commercial work. By the 1960s, she had gained a substantial reputation as a photographer of New York's many subcultures. In 1967, she was one of three photographers invited to participate in The Museum of Modern Art's influential exhibition New Documents . After her suicide in 1971, her MoMA retrospective attracted easily as many viewers as Edward Steichen's famous Family of Man exhibition in 1955, confirming Arbus's stature in the history of photography. (right: Diane Arbus (United States, 1923-1971),"Untitled (Marcella Matthaei)," 1969. Matthaei Collection of Commissioned Family Photographs by Diane Arbus ©Marcella Hague Matthaei Ziesmann)

Arbus often spoke of her desire to publish a "family album" of her own, a "Noah's ark" of humanity. "We will never know what Arbus would have put in her 'Family Album.' But this close study of her work gives a sense of how powerful the concept of family and of the album was for her," observes John Pultz, the exhibition's co-curator. Her 1971 portraits of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson published in Esquire, for example, subtly reveal inherent tensions in supposedly "normal" family life. Similarly, the portrait of Jayne Mansfield shows the platinum-blond actress clasping the shoulders of her brunette, adolescent daughter. Both stare directly into the camera lens, as do so many of Arbus's subjects. As co-curator Anthony Lee observes, "The families most interesting to her, and thus most worth including in her album, were those marked by an incomplete merging of public and private identities."  "I think all families are creepy in a way," Arbus wrote to Peter Crookston, a friend and editor of London's Sunday Times Magazine. Arbus's "family," as envisioned in the exhibition, consists of people held together by all sorts of bonds, some traditional and others alternative, but all deserving of special attention. Perhaps the most difficult, yet key, photographs for Arbus's planned album were images of families held together by marriage, blood, and law. Often dismissed as old-fashioned by the 1960s counterculture, traditional families fell under intense scrutiny during this time of cultural and political upheaval.

The Matthaei family portraits present a complete record-with contact sheets, proof prints, and final prints-of a previously undocumented commission. Also included are other works by Arbus, many of them portraits she took for Esquire , grouped under the categories of "Mothers," "Fathers," "Children," and "Partners." Viewing Arbus's work from this particular vantage point provokes us to reconsider images that, due to their strength and power, have achieved almost iconic status. Among the women Arbus photographed in the 1960s were some whose notoriety derived from their status as mothers: Marguerite Oswald, the mother of Lee Harvey Oswald, and Madalyn Murray, the petitioner who successfully challenged compulsory school prayer on behalf of her son. Other photographs interrogated matriarchal demeanor, such as the portrait of Flora Knapp Dickinson, an Honorary Regent of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Still other pictures-of the stripper Blaze Starr, the sexy film star Mae West, the wartime personality Tokyo Rose-explored how women who were not normally associated with motherhood could appear maternal in their own domestic settings. (right: Diane Arbus (United States, 1923-1971),"Mae West," 1965. Copyright © Estate of Diane Arbus, 1965. Esquire Collection, Spencer Museum of Art, the University of Kansas)

Family Album is accompanied by a catalogue published by Yale University Press with essays by the show's curators, Anthony W. Lee, associate professor of art history and chair of American studies at Mount Holyoke College, and John Pultz, associate professor in the Kress Foundation Department of Art History and curator of photography at the Spencer Museum of Art. The catalogue is available in the Museum Shop.

The exhibition will be traveling to the following museums: the Spencer Museum of Art, the University of Kansas (October 16, 2004-January 16, 2005), Portland Art Museum, Oregon (Feb. 19, 2005-April 24, 2005), Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia, (June 18, 2005-August 14, 2005), Reynolda House, Museum of American Art, Winston-Salem, North Carolina (September 15, 2005-December 4, 2005).

Diane Arbus: Family Albums was organized by the Spencer Museum of Art, the University of Kansas, and the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, South Hadley, Massachusetts. 

 

RELATED PROGRAM

Diane Arbus Up Close and Personal: A lecture by Vicki Goldberg

Saturday, June 5, 2004 at 1 p.m., Auditorium, Free with Museum Admission Photography critic and Arbus biographer Vicki Goldberg will speak about the woman behind the camera. Diane Arbus's personal struggles led her to respect the marginal elements of society and give a voice to female impersonators, carnival workers, and ordinary suburban families through her photographs. Goldberg will help us to understand Diane Arbus's lasting legacy as a photographer and will explore her ability to connect with each of her subjects.

Vicki Goldberg is a photography critic for the New York Times , a Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation fellow, recipient of the International Center of Photography's 1997 Infinity Award, and is the author of many books, including The Power of Photography: How Photographs Changed our Lives.

 

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