I had thought that I was the only photography enthusiast in the Bay Area not to have seen the Diane Arbus Revelations show at SFMoMA. It had seemed that everyone I met who is even vaguely into photography was raving about the exhibition. With the fixed deadline that the exhibit ends next weekend, I finally made the trip downtown on Sunday morning half expecting the gallery to be deserted.
How wrong I was. The place was packed with punters, like me, trying to see the collection before it moved on. Of course, I know Arbus's importance, influence and reputation as the Sylvia Plath of photography. I also know her work from books that I own but we know there's a huge difference between a reproduction in a book and a wet print, framed, hung and lit in a museum and I was interested to see how the show compared with the hype.
First off, let me say the collection of photographs used in this show was unparalleled. I've been to shows of famous, big name photographers where you can tell that the curator has scraped together just about enough photographs to constitute an exhibit. From what I could tell, the Arbus show was uncompromised by the photographs available. Everything was there covering all aspects of her life's work from her earliest to last days; from her greatest hits to unknown shots I've never seen anywhere before.
The organization of the show, also, was exceptional. Some work was organized by theme, others chronologically with 'library' sections focusing on specific aspects of her life and work. This show was not just thrown together to make a buck off the Arbus name but seems to have been assembled with understanding, appreciation and care. As well as the actual prints the exhibit made use of pages from Arbus's note books, letters and even the contents of her study. It's interesting to see her influences from the books she had on her shelves and the photographs of other photographers that she had displayed where she lived and worked.
The show also contained some of Diane's cameras displayed in glass cases like religious relics. I tried not to be an equipment geek but I couldn't help it and, I'm ashamed to say that my pulse quickened more as I approached her battered old Rollei than it was affected by any of the prints hanging on the walls. Here was the actual camera she used, at once so normal and familiar and, at the same time, some how endowed with something of its now departed owner. Here was the camera I had read about her fighting to learn to become familiar with when she switched from her grainy 35mm SLR for the resolution benefits of medium format film. And there, in the next case, is her old Nikon F!
As with most shows, there were niggling issues I wish could have been addressed. First was the lighting. Compared to the bright photography gallery a floor below the Arbus gallery felt dark and dingy. I don't know if this was to invoke a feeling for the twilight world Diane Arbus is famous for inhabiting or because of the value of the prints required protection from harsh light. Dimmer lighting isn't, in itself a problem as your eye rapidly adjusts, however, I frequently found that I was able to cast a shadow on a print I was looking at; this could be a little distracting.
Also, the quality of some of the prints was not always of gallery quality. Some seemed to be work prints which are nice to see but I wish that they had been labeled as such. Some seemed to my untrained eye incredibly dark (not only in content) and I would be interested to know if this is how the artist had intended them or if they had deteriorated over time. Speaking of the artist's intentions, a good percentage of the prints where not produced by the artist herself. Of course, I like to see prints by the artists themselves as that seems to be the purest form of the artist's vision. You can't help wondering when you see a print produced by an acolyte how much they have filtered the original artist's intention.
I did enjoy the few contact sheets included in the show. I don't know about you but seeing contact sheets of influential photographers always gives me hope especially when they reveal how human their creator was. Then, among a few blurry, over exposed, accidental double exposures and some plain uninteresting frames you see the magic moment. A single frame or two that reveal the genius of their creator. Sometimes I feel like I've got the uninteresting and technically inaccurate shots down so, perhaps I will see a magic frame in my own work soon.
Overall, Revelations was well worth finally braving the crowds to see. I came away feeling privileged to have been allowed into a life and an extraordinary body of work. Of course the controversy of her work continues as well as the question about how much Arbus exploited her subjects to reveal the mundane in the freakish and the freakish in the mundane but try not to let that cloud your impressions. You come away appreciating the purity and single mindedness of her vision and celebrating that Arbus left this large body of work behind while, at the same time, bemoaning the fact that she is no longer with us to continue her exploration with contemporary subjects.
Revelations will follow the following route once leaving San Francisco: Los Angeles County Museum of Art (February 29 - May 30, 2004); the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (June 27 - August 29, 2004); the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (February - May 2005); Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany (June - September 2005); the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (October 2005 - January 2006); and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (July 9 - October 8, 2006).