The strangely human portraits of Diane Arbus at the MMFA

Despite a short career of fifteen years, photographer Diane Arbus, active from the mid-1950s to the beginning of the 1970s, was one of the most influential figures of her time. Part of his singular and revolutionary work, which totals 90 black and white portraits, is now on display at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA).

People with disabilities, families, children, couples, “transvestites” – as she called them at the time –, nudists, circus artists; Diane Arbus photographed a variety of subjects having their singularity as a common point.

The artist was especially interested in marginalized people, “whom others preferred to ignore”, but who fascinated her in the way they presented themselves. Her curiosity for individuals with a blurred gender identity means, in particular, that her work is still relevant today.

Diane Arbus knew how to capture the behavior and the unconventional aspect of her subjects, without however emphasizing their “bizarre” character. It is there, the particularity of his work.

Photographer Diane Arbus poses for a rare portrait of herself in New York in 1968. (Credits: Roz Kelly/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Foray into the work of Diane Arbus

In a chronological journey at the MMFA, the exhibition Diane Arbus: Photographs, 1956-1971 offers an incursion into the artist’s significant work.

The exhibition brings together nearly 100 black and white prints by Diane Arbus, including some of her first photos, rarely shown, and some of her most famous photographs, including that of the “True Twins”. The images were carefully selected from 522 gelatin silver prints acquired in 2017 by the Art Gallery of Ontario as well as one print from the MMFA’s permanent collection.

Several of the photos on display were taken in the neighborhoods of New York, a city that greatly inspired Diane Arbus. There are also portraits of artists such as Mia Farrow, Jorge Luis Borges and James Brown.

As soon as they enter the MMFA’s exhibition hall, viewers are struck by the humanity of the photographs, rich in detail and emotion. It almost feels like you’re interacting with the subjects who, for the most part, stare at the lens. More often than not, visitors smile at these one-of-a-kind humans.

The exhibition Diane Arbus: Photographs, 1956-1971 is presented from September 15, 2022 to January 29, 2023 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

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