DIANE ARBUS: IN THE BEGINNING | London, Hayward Gallery

Diane Arbus saw the New York streets surrounding her as “full of secrets waiting to be fathomed”, and this exceptional show of her stunning photography draws misfits, outcasts and outsiders into the spotlight. Her work examines both the ultra-ordinary and extraordinary, asking us to re-evaluate our idea of what is beautiful and what qualifies as a muse or artistic ‘subject’.

The show focuses on material from the first years of Arbus’ career, from 1956 to 1962. There is no predetermined route to follow through the non-chronological exhibition, rather visitors are encouraged to pursue their own path through the maze of photographs, as: “there are only beginnings – no middle and probably no end.” The images are mounted on large pillar-like structures, almost like mini-skyscrapers – winding your way through them can feel like wandering through miniature New York blocks.

This mode of seeing also encourages pause and looking at each picture feels intensely personal, like peering through someone’s window. These images, although taken over a span of years and not arranged in any specific order, speak to each other and work as a complete set, with each new one stirring memories of those you have just seen, while simultaneously feeling like a chance encounter: the experience is entirely immersive, absorbing and transformative.

Arbus focuses on liminal spaces and characters on the fringes of society, and her celebration of difference ascribes a dignity to her subjects – here are circus performers, midtown shoppers, children and eccentrics. Her images are full of motion and convey the vivid energy of the streets she documented. She seems to be interested in places where people gather – fairgrounds, wrestling wrings, movie theatres – and her photographs of television shows and films are intriguing in their multiple layers of seeing.

The show features a trigger warning and there are elements of the macabre and downright bizarre which may be upsetting for some visitors. But Arbus is never gratuitous, her power lies in that she can elevate the mundane to the sacrosanct – a bed in a store looks almost sepulchral – and render something out of the ordinary eerily familiar – a corpse resembles a sleeping man. The chilling intermingles with the irreverent, Arbus’ work is crackling with wit and humour and an image of nudists in their living room is performative in even the most private sense.

There are a handful of quotes from Arbus set high above the images on some of the pillars, one of them reads: “I don’t press the shutter. The image does. And it’s like being gently clobbered.” This show was a series of impacts from beginning to beginning – unforgettable and highly recommended.

diane arbus: in the beginning runs until 6 May 2019.

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