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Diane Arbus: Family Albums

June 18 to August 14, 2005

 

Diane Arbus: Family Albums, an exhibition focusing on the work of one of the most controversial and acclaimed American photographers, will be on view at the Georgia Museum of Art from June 18 to August 14, 2005.

The exhibition's title refers to Diane Arbus's desire to produce an extraordinary family album. Arbus was interested in compiling metaphorical images of the 1960s American family, and she spent the decade gathering pictures from different individuals with the ultimate goal of preserving a mixture of modern American lifestyles.

Born in New York in 1923, Arbus began an early partnership in photography with her husband, Allan. The two trained in a makeshift darkroom in their own bathroom, with Allan bringing home the expertise he gained in the U.S. Army's Signal Corps photography school in New Jersey. Following the conclusion of World War II, the two launched a career in fashion photography.

Arbus also studied photography with Alexey Brodovitch in 1954, and with Lisette Model in 1955-1957. The latter encouraged Arbus to pursue her artistic talent, especially as a portrait photographer.

The pair separated in 1959, and Diane Arbus sought to explore new avenues in her work. She embraced a more documental style approach to photography and began to focus on those who were on the edge of societal acceptance, thus beginning her quest to develop an American photo album. She was twice a Guggenheim Fellow, and, in 1967, exhibited her work at the controversial and influential New Documents show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Diane Arbus: Family Albums realizes the dream the photographer sought throughout her career. It brings together a stunning collection of images set up as family portraits. The exhibition features more than 50 black-and-white photographs along with 57 contact sheets by Arbus, including several which have never been publicly exhibited.

The exhibition is built around a collection of previously unknown contact sheets (negatives laid on a piece of printing paper and exposed to light, creating a set of mini prints the same size as the picture frames) and prints produced by Arbus in 1969. Invited by the Matthaei family to document a holiday gathering, she created more than 300 images in just two days that reveal the subtle tensions that permeate throughout each family. The Matthaeis saved 200 of those images in 28 contact sheets and brought them to the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum in 1999. Mount Holyoke began to collaborate with the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas, which held a large portion of photographs taken by Arbus for Esquire magazine, to build a new collection of Arbus's work.

Arbus was interested in compiling expansive and metaphorical images of the 1960s family. Gathering pictures for it, she acknowledged, was like gathering and counting animals for Noah's Ark, preserving a mixture of modern American lifestyles before an impending catastrophe. Sometimes this gathering was deliberate, sometimes propitious as she roamed the streets of New York.

For example, in 1968, she wrote "I stopped two elderly sisters the other day and three generations of Jewish women from Brooklyn whom I am to visit soon ... the youngest is pregnant. And especially there is a woman I stopped in a bookstore who lives in Westchester which is Upper Surbubia. She is about 35 with terribly blond hair and enormously eyelashed and booted and probably married to a dress manufacturer or restaurateur and I said I wanted to photograph her with her husband and children so she suggested I wait til warm weather so I can do it around the pool! ... They are a fascinating family. I think all families are creepy in a way."

The Spencer holdings of Arbus's work consist primarily of photographs for Esquire. These prints, many of which are accompanied by related proof sheets, show the photographer's broad range - and especially her interest in the family. Depicting children, couples, mothers, and fathers, they include public figures with their children (such as television's Ozzie and Harriet Nelson), and they also picture various people whom Arbus fashioned as surrogate families.

Diane Arbus: Family Albums was organized by the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, South Hadley, Massachusetts, and the Spencer Museum of Art, the University of Kansas. It is generously sponsored by Alfred Heber Holbrook Society member Mr. C.L. Morehead, Jr. Additional support has been provided by the W. Newton Morris Charitable Foundation and the Friends of the Museum.

The dream of Arbus, who took her own life in 1971, comes to fruition in this poignant and thought-provoking exhibition. Diane Arbus: Family Albums stands as a testament not only to her innovative vision, but also her views on traditional familial bonds.

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