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Anamaria Pazmino reviews Diane Arbus: a new retrospective at Jeu de Paume, Paris.

The Diane Arbus exhibition at the Museum Jeu de Paume in Paris just closed last month. The exhibition ran from the 18th October 2011 to the 5th February 2012, before traveling across Europe: Fotomuseum, Winterthur (3 March – 27 May 2012). Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin (22 June – 24 September 2012). Foam Fotografiemuseum, Amsterdam (26 October 2012 – 13 January 2013). In Paris, the exhibition was a complete success; more than 215 000 visitors came to see the first French retrospective of the American photographer.

What was so amazing about this exhibition to attract more people than Richard Avedon or Claude Cahun’s exhibitions? Let’s try to figure out…

As you can guess, there are multiple answers; it cannot be just one thing. One among the others is evident, the most important photography exhibitions in Paris, are scheduled to coincide with the biggest international photography art fair, Paris Photo. Anyone passionate about photography coming to the fair will absolutely not miss a visit to the Jeu de Paume (French Photography National Museum, although all exhibitions are temporary), and especially if it is Diane Arbus, whose retrospectives are quite rare, and whose work is so compelling and important in photography history.

Actually, as you may know, the Estate of Diane Arbus is quite strict on what is known, said or published about the artist, some, like Stephen Hobson would call it “Packaging the Artist”. Well, this, and the dispersion of the works in many different collections, makes finding and gathering Arbus’ photographs not a simple task. We all have in mind some of Arbus’ images: the twins, the dwarf, the giant, the transvestites, and the boy with the grenade in his hand… but have you seen the photographs? Have you ever seen her pregnant self-portrait, her portrait of Susan Sontag sitting on a bed, or her portrait of the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges at Central Park? Gathering them all, the well-known as the never seen photographs is the biggest achievement of this exhibition.

More than 200 photographs coming from 41 private and public collections and especially from the Estate were on display in the two levels of the museum. When entering the exhibition, you could find yourself in the middle of a white room, connecting with another, and then another, then with the stairs that lead you to another couple of rooms in the second level, all walls painted in white and plenty of hypnotizing portraits. There was no strict chronological display or any theme grouping the photographs (except for the mentally handicapped series), or much information about the work, just title, place, date, and sometimes owner. No clues, not a single help to approach the exhibition, just the introductory wall text, explaining how Arbus used to get to know well her models before taking the photographs.

No matter who it was, a celebrity, a transvestite, an old lady, a mentally handicapped, or Diane Arbus herself, they all look terribly monstrous on the photographs, but something in that monstrosity is unrestrainable sexy for the viewer. I am not talking about the pinch of voyeurism we feel when confronted to images of very intimate scenes with the strangest people of the US in the 50’s and the 60’s, Arbus’ favourite subject. I am talking about the sensuality of the black and white paper, hiding a little secret that captivates your eyes and makes you see the strange, the different on the most daily scenes. Whether it is someone ‘strange’ or someone normal, you cannot tell. Arbus’ eye made everything monstrous, and consequently, everything normal.

That is the beauty of her work. A boy in the park playing with a grenade looks like a fool, retarded girls playing and singing look so casual but still strange, there is no judgment, the photographs appear like a transparent filter between us and the portrayed, the subject is there right in front of us, for us to examine closely and minutely, judge and accept. After 200 of these images, you don’t judge anymore, you don’t feel like laughing because you are uncomfortable seen hairy armpits, or gross naked people… you realise they are all the same as you, you start understanding Arbus’ work is about identity, and you start seeing the humanity in all her work. After visiting this exhibition, you stop seeing the works one by one to understand them as whole.

Then, no more photographs. The last two rooms were different. The white walls become brownish covered with wallpaper, with images of Diane Arbus, excerpts of her diaries visible on magnified quotes. There were display cases, where you could see some of the cameras she used like the medium format Rolleiflex she started using after 1962 “to eliminate the picture grain and begin discovering the true texture of things”, some contact sheets, and her diaries. You could know what she felt about her photography, her subjects, or her first exhibition, just by exploring her diaries, by reading what she wrote, beautifully, by the way. Entering the last room of the Jeu de Paume is somehow to enter to Diane Arbus’ intimacy, like she did with her models, to try to understand the way she thought, to find out how in 15 years she could build a collection that “revolutionized” photography and still inspires young generations of photographers, but also street artists…

Anamaria Pazmino is based in Paris, France.

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