Exhibition: ‘Diane Arbus’ at Jeu de Paume, Paris

Exhibition dates: 18th October 18 2011 – 5th February 2012


Diane Arbus, 'Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962' 1962


Diane Arbus (American, 1923-1971)
Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962
Gelatin silver print
© The Estate of Diane Arbus



“There are and have been and will be an infinite number of things on earth. Individuals all different, all wanting different things, all knowing different things, all loving different things, all looking different. Everything that has been on earth has been different from any other thing. That is what I love: the differentness, the uniqueness of all things and the importance of life… I see something that seems wonderful; I see the divineness in ordinary things.”

Diane Arbus. Paper on Plato, senior English seminar, Fieldston School, November 28, 1939


“I want to photograph the considerable ceremonies of our present because we tend while living here and now to perceive only what is random and barren and formless about it. While we regret that the present is not like the past and despair of its ever becoming the future, its innumerable inscrutable habits lie in wait for their meaning. I want to gather them, like somebody’s grandmother putting up preserves, because they will have been so beautiful.

There are the Ceremonies of Celebration (the Pageants, the Festivals, the Feasts, the Conventions) and the Ceremonies of Competition (Contests, Games, Sports), the Ceremonies of Buying and Selling, of Gambling, of the Law and the Show; the Ceremonies of Fame in which the Winners Win and the Lucky are Chosen or Family Ceremonies or Gatherings (the Schools, the Clubs, the Meetings). Then they are Ceremonial Places (The Beauty Parlor, The Funeral Parlor or, simply The Parlor) and Ceremonial Costumes (what waitresses wear, or Wrestlers), Ceremonies of the Rich, like the Dog Show, and of the Middle Class, like the Bridge Game. Or, for example: the Dancing Lesson, the Graduation, the Testimonial Dinner, the Séance, the Gymnasium and the Picnic, and perhaps the Waiting Room, the Factory, the Masquerade, the Rehearsal, the Initiation, the Hotel Lobby and the Birthday Party. The etcetera.

I will write whatever is necessary for the further description and elucidation of these Rites and I will go wherever I can to find them.

These are our symptoms and our monuments. I want simply to save them, for what is ceremonious and curious and commonplace will be legendary.”

Diane Arbus. “American Rites, Manners and Customs,” Plan for a Photographic Project, Guggenheim proposal



A fabulous posting, with memorable thoughts and photographs! These archetypal images have become deeply embedded in the collective conscience where conscience is pre-eminently the organ of sentiments and representations. The snap, snap, snap of the shutter evinces the flaws of human nature, reveals the presence of a quality or feeling to which we can all relate. As Arbus states, the subject of the picture is always more important than the picture. And more complicated. This is why these photographs always capture our attention because we become, we inhabit, we are the subject. They are the flaw in us all. They are legend.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

Many thankx to Jeu de Paume for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.



Diane Arbus. 'Identical twins, Roselle, N.J. 1967' 1967


Diane Arbus (American, 1923-1971)
Identical twins, Roselle, N.J. 1967
Gelatin silver print
© The Estate of Diane Arbus



On Photographs

“They are the proof that something was there and no longer is. Like a stain. And the stillness of them is boggling. You can turn away but when you come back they’ll still be there looking at you.”

Diane Arbus in response to request for a brief statement about photographs, March 15, 1971



Diane Arbus (New York, 1923-1971) revolutionised the art she practiced. Her bold subject matter and photographic approach produced a body of work that is often shocking in its purity, in its steadfast celebration of things as they are. Her gift for rendering strange those things we consider most familiar, and for uncovering the familiar within the exotic, enlarges our understanding of ourselves.

Arbus found most of her subjects in New York City, a place that she explored as both a known geography and as a foreign land, photographing people she discovered during the 1950s and 1960s. She was committed to photography as a medium that tangles with the facts. Her contemporary anthropology – portraits of couples, children, carnival performers, nudists, middle-class families, transvestites, zealots, eccentrics, and celebrities – stands as an allegory of the human experience, an exploration of the relationship between appearance and identity, illusion and belief, theatre and reality.

In this first major retrospective in France, Jeu de Paume presents a selection of two hundred photographs that affords an opportunity to explore the origins, scope, and aspirations of a wholly original force in photography. It includes all of the artist’s iconic photographs as well as many that have never been publicly exhibited. Even the earliest examples of her work demonstrate Arbus’s distinctive sensibility through the expression on a face, someone’s posture, the character of the light, and the personal implications of objects in a room or landscape. These elements, animated by the singular relationship between the photographer and her subject, conspire to implicate the viewer with the force of a personal encounter.



Diane Arbus was born in New York City on March 14, 1923, and attended the Ethical Culture and Fieldston Schools. At the age of eighteen she married Allan Arbus. Although she first started taking pictures in the early 1940s and studied photography with Alexey Brodovitch in 1954, it was not until 1955-1957, while enrolled in courses taught by Lisette Model, that she began to seriously pursue the work for which she has come to be known.

Her first published photographs appeared in Esquire in 1960 under the title The Vertical Journey. From that point on she continued to work intermittently as a free-lance photographer for Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, Show, The London Sunday Times, and a number of other magazines, doing portraits on assignment as well as photographic essays, for several of which she wrote accompanying articles.

During the 1950s, like most of her contemporaries, she had been using a 35mm camera, but in 1962 she began working with a 6×6 Rolleiflex. She once said, in accounting for the shift, that she had grown impatient with the grain and wanted to be able to decipher in her pictures the actual texture of things. The 6×6 format contributed to the refinement of a deceptively simple, formal, classical style that has since been recognised as one of the distinctive features of her work.

She received Guggenheim Fellowships in 1963 and 1966 for projects on “American Rites, Manners and Customs” and spent several summers during that period traveling across the United States, photographing contests, festivals, public and private gatherings, people in the costumes of their professions or avocations, the hotel lobbies, dressing rooms and living rooms she had described as part of “the considerable ceremonies of our present.” “These are our symptoms and our monuments,” she wrote in her original application. “I want simply to save them, for what is ceremonious and curious and commonplace will be legendary.”

The photographs she produced in those years attracted a great deal of attention when a selected group of them were exhibited, along with the work of two other photographers, in the 1967 “New Documents” show at the Museum of Modern Art. Nonetheless, although several institutions subsequently purchased examples of her work for their permanent collections, her photographs appeared in only two other major exhibitions during her lifetime, both of them group shows.

In the late 1960s she taught photography courses at Parsons School of Design, the Rhode Island School of Design and Cooper Union and in 1971 gave a master class at Westbeth, the artists cooperative in New York City where she then lived. During the same period she initiated the concept and did the basic research for the Museum of Modern Art’s 1973 exhibition on news photography, “From the Picture Press.”

She made a portfolio of ten photographs in 1970, printed, signed and annotated by her, which was to be the first of a series of limited editions of her work. She committed suicide on July 26, 1971 at the age of forty-eight. The following year the ten photographs in her portfolio became the first work of an American photographer to be exhibited at the Venice Biennale.

In the course of a career that may be said to have lasted little more than fifteen years, she produced a body of work whose style and content have secured her a place as one of the most significant and influential photographers of our time. The major retrospective mounted by the Museum of Modern Art in 1972 was attended by more than a quarter of a million people in New York before it began its tour of the United States and Canada. The Aperture monograph Diane Arbus, published in conjunction with the show has sold over 300,000 copies. Beginning in 2003, Diane Arbus Revelations, an international retrospective organised by The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art travelled to museums throughout the United States and Europe between 2003 and 2006. Major exhibitions devoted exclusively to her work have toured much of the world including, Australia, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, and the United Kingdom.

Press release from the Jeu de Paume website


Diane Arbus. 'Boy with a straw hat waiting to march in a pro-war parade, N.Y.C. 1967' 1967


Diane Arbus (American, 1923-1971)
Boy with a straw hat waiting to march in a pro-war parade, N.Y.C. 1967
Gelatin silver print
© The Estate of Diane Arbus


Diane Arbus. 'Untitled (6) 1970-71'


Diane Arbus (American, 1923-1971)
Untitled (6) 1970-71
Gelatin silver print
© The Estate of Diane Arbus



On Freaks

“There’s a quality of legend about freaks. Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. Most people go through life dreading they’ll go through a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”

“If you’ve ever talked to somebody with two heads you know they know something you don’t.”


The Gap between Attention and Affect

“You see someone on the street and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw. It’s just extraordinary that we should have been given these peculiarities. And, not content with what we were given, we create a whole other set. Our whole guise is like giving a sign to the world to think of us in a certain way but there’s a point between what you want people to know about you and what you can’t help people knowing about you. And that has to do with what I’ve always called the gap between intention and effect. I mean if you scrutinise reality closely enough, if in some way you really, really get to it, it becomes fantastic.”


Other Thoughts

“The thing that’s important to know is that you never know. You’re always sort of feeling your way.”

“Nothing is ever the same as they said it was. It’s what I’ve never seen before that I recognise.”

“A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.”

“For me the subject of the picture is always more important than the picture. And more complicated. I do have a feeling for the print but I don’t have a holy feeling for it. I really think what it is, is what it’s about. I mean it has to be of something. And what it’s of it always more remarkable than what it is.”

“I really believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them.”



Diane Arbus. 'A young man in curlers at home on West 20th Street, N.Y.C. 1966' 1966


Diane Arbus (American, 1923-1971)
A young man in curlers at home on West 20th Street, N.Y.C. 1966
Gelatin silver print
© The Estate of Diane Arbus


Diane Arbus. 'Teenage couple on Hudson Street, N.Y.C. 1963' 1963


Diane Arbus (American, 1923-1971)
Teenage couple on Hudson Street, N.Y.C. 1963
Gelatin silver print
© The Estate of Diane Arbus


Diane Arbus. 'Xmas tree in a living room in Levittown, L.I. 1963' 1963


Diane Arbus (American, 1923-1971)
Xmas tree in a living room in Levittown, L.I. 1963
Gelatin silver print
© The Estate of Diane Arbus



Jeu de Paume
1, place de la Concorde
75008 Paris
métro Concorde
Phone: 01 47 03 12 50

Opening hours:
Tuesday – Friday 12am – 8pm
Saturday and Sunday 11am – 7pm
Closed Monday

Jeu de Paume website


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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, an art and cultural memory archive, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

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