Photo History: Diane Arbus’s Early Years

Last week I made a rare London excursion to visit a close friend and see an exhibition together, which is our thing. We try to see photography exhibitions, but sometimes slum it with art. Anyway, this time we met up at the Hayward Gallery to see their exhibition on Diane Arbus’s early years as a solo photographer.

Entitled, “diane arbus: in the beginning”, the exhibition focussed on the first six years after Arbus left the joint partnership she had with her husband, Alan, in 1956. They ran a photographic studio together, him doing the chemical and technical stuff, her arranging the shoots.

Arbus is one of those figures in photography’s more recent history (i.e. 20th century) that you can’t really avoid. Her presence is as emphatic as the emotional resonance that can be felt in her early street photography and later portraits. Reading her workbooks is like drowning. There is so much to consume and it all seems to come at once. Every phrase is perfectly formed. Her words are almost overwhelming in their profundity, and yet totally relatable. I think it’s the impact behind words which on the surface appear to be just words, but underneath and altogether are meaningful and resonant.

I’m sure neither of us knew that much about Diane Arbus’s early years as a photographer because so much exhibition attention is given to her projects; the bold, dramatic imagery prevailing over the subtle and understated, but equally thrilling, prints from the early years of her practice.

Exhibition Structure

The exhibition was structured like nothing we had seen before, although that’s probably not saying much given that neither of us has been all over the world, to every exhibition ever made in every venue and at every time throughout history. Nevertheless. Each print was located on its own wall, but there was one print on each side of many free-standing blocks that reached almost halfway to the ceiling. 

Diane Arbus exhibition leaflet [1]

The layout was structured so that you could, hypothetically, start anywhere in the space and drift between the blocks, within the space, oscillating from 1956 to 1962. The space between the blocks was necessary because of the emotional intensity of the imagery. It meant we could absorb the energies of each print independently of its neighbour. Which shouldn’t be underestimated because the grand majority of exhibitions tend to take place on endless walls where the space between each work is undermined by the bottleneck of people accumulating in one particular place so you can never really breathe.

Normally I find exhibitions a little stressful and unenjoyable. If only all the other people weren’t there I think I could find something meaningful. Instead the energy I take away is only partially inflected by the work on display and mostly overshadowed by the ache in my shoulder and pain in my neck. Neither of which is metaphorical.

Exhibition guide
diane arbus: in the beginning
Hayward Gallery

So the structure of the exhibition in its entirety was strange because you explicitly weren’t instructed to start at a certain point. We wandered around in a deliberate manner, starting at the end of one section of blocks and working our way to the other end before continuing at the next row. We did this until we reached the final block at the back of the room at which point we reversed and approached all the prints we hadn’t seen which were hovering on the other sides. 

Illustration courtesy of meeeeee, the author

It took quite a long time to complete the Arbus exhibition. I know I mentioned the physical space between the blocks, but one could very easily just whizz through and not contemplate anything. We both spent a considerable amount of time just being in front of the prints. Not analysing them deliberately although often we lapsed into common phrasing such as, Can you see the composition is just off enough, and, The tonality is incredible. But predominantly we were concerned with the emotion behind the prints.

It was a little more special that Arbus had printed them herself because often you see Selkirk prints up at auction and I suppose the last time I saw an Arbus it was Child With A Toy Hand Grenade, N.Y.C., 1962, and it had been printed by Neil Selkirk who is more qualified to print Arbus’s work than anyone in the world, given his history. But sometimes feeling the connection that the photographer had with a view, a negative and a print is more meaningful. Possibly. 

Some Ten Photographs

Anyway, right at the end (or beginning, or middle, up to you) of the exhibition was a smaller room dedicated to the ten prints comprising Arbus’s 1970 portfolio of her most well-known images. Unlike the rest of the exhibition’s prints which were on 11×14″ paper, these were printed by Selkirk in Diane’s hand after 1963, the point at which she switched from shooting 35mm film to using a wide-angle Rolleiflex and printing on 2 1/4 x 2 1/4″ paper, and with those black boarders that seem to summarise her work. [2]

The prints themselves are huge, typically, and the room contained many of the prints of which she is instantly recognised as the original creator, such as: Identical Twins, Roselle, N.J., 1967; Xmas Tree In A Living Room In Levittown, L.I., 1963; and A Jewish Giant At Home With His Parents In The Bronx, N.Y., 1970. These are three of Diane’s Box Of Ten Photographs.

Arbus produced A Box Of Ten Photographs in 1970 in an attempt to supplement her income somehow. The original intention was to produce the portfolio of 10 images in an edition of 50, to be sold for $1,000 each. So it goes, four were sold during her lifetime: to Richard Avedon, Bea Feitler, Mike Nichols and Jasper Johns. This is from Ruth Ansel’s recollection, so I’m going to place my trust in her until proven otherwise. [3]

Although, now I’m thinking about it, of course this was intended as the last room because the project was conceived a year before Arbus ended her life. So it’s a natural conclusion to the exhibition even thought you still have to come out of the room and walk through myriad prints from the early part of her career in order to leave the exhibition space. 


Diane Arbus, Promotional Flyer for ‘A Box of Ten Photographs’
An Influential Vision: The Collection of Ruth Ansel
Phillips Photographs Evening & Day Sales, New York 5 & 6 October 2016
Phillips online e-catalogue [4]

I didn’t intend to stick this up here, but came across it in my quest to debase the value of these images by using them purely in an illustrative capacity and because I couldn’t take photographs of the exhibition itself and it’s rather fortuitous that Ansel sold her collection at auction and the images are still online. Somehow. Goodness knows. My hands are sweating as I type this because I’m panicky about the thought of breaching copyright. Even The Met doesn’t have her images up on their website and they hold her archive. Eyes closed, head first, can’t lose [5].

Ruth Ansel and Bea Feitler succeeded Marvin Israel as co-art directors at Harper’s Bazaar after Israel was fired, or engineered his dismissal, in 1963. Both Ansel and Feitler were hired by Israel, and Feitler purchased one of Arbus’s rare A Box of Ten Photographs. Even although this was some five-and-a-bit years back, and the lot is “only” a promotional flyer for the rare Box Of Ten Photographs, from Ruth Ansel’s collection, the pre-sale estimate of $10,000-15,000 was impressively exceeded, even including BP and tax.

I suppose the point is that this was the genesis of what became a rare object: obtaining the kernel of what eventually became that Box Of Ten Photographs is really the closest you can get beyond obtaining the Box itself. 

Diane Arbus, A Box of Ten Photographs, 1970
The Yamakawa Collection of Twentieth Century Photographs
Christie’s online e-catalogue [6]

Since the writeup for the 2018 Christie’s sale mentioned that the complete portfolio had only been offered at auction four times prior in the past twenty years I thought I’d try to find the auction records for them. [7] I knew from the exhibition that Arbus printed and sold at least four portfolios before she killed herself, but didn’t know how far beyond four that number extended. According to that Christie’s write-up, she completed 8 sets of the portfolio, which includes the four sold. And then they write that her estate commissioned Neil Selkirk to complete the edition of 50. And then Christie’s says a weird thing that I hadn’t considered:


“…based on edition numbers of individual prints that have appeared at auction, it is clear that at least fifteen of the portfolios have been broken up and sold separately. Therefore, far fewer than the original ‘edition of fifty’ apparently still remain complete.”

Christie’s Photographs, New York, 6 April 2018 [8]

Isn’t that interesting? I’d never considered that the original solid ten might be split into ten separate lots. Anyway, I didn’t do very well on the auction hunt front, only found one instance of the Box coming up for sale before Christie’s 2018 and that was… Christie’s Photographs sale in 1999, when the estimate was $80,000-100,000 and it made $90,500. Which probably means it made its reserve and then the BP and tax bumped it up. See belowwwwwww:

Diane Arbus, A Box of Ten Photographs, printed after 1971
Christie’s online e-catalogue [9]

That portfolio was edition 22 out of 50 and printed postumously by Selkirk. Like Christie’s 2018 one I just mentioned. The provenance for this Box is short: Sotheby’s, New York, November 1987, lot 54. Who knows what it went for then. This is one of those moments when I sort of wish I had enough expendable income to afford a subscription to artnet’s art price database. Ugh. 

And in The End?

Well, it might sound dumb but I discovered that Diane Arbus’s early years are just as fascinating as her more well-known, later years. It’s often the case that a photographer’s (or artist’s) early years as a practitioner will be historically “bumped” for the moment at which they became “recognised” by the establishment. In Arbus’s case, her early work is moving and lightly nostalgic, and just hints at what was to come later.

As far as her work goes at auction, the privately published portfolio that was A Box of Ten Photographs has impact and resonance and depth and everlasting secondary art market value. All of which are important factors. But some factors are more important than others. That she never completed printing the edition of 50 in her lifetime, printed 8 full portfolios, and sold 4 while she was alive all contribute to making this Box something of an intensely desirable object. 

Conclusion?

I don’t really have a conclusion for this one. I’ve learned that Diane Arbus’s early years were fascinating, perhaps more so for the fact that she had the strength to branch out on her own. I think she was an individualist, and no one else could have seen the way she did.

References

  1. Hayward Gallery link to Diane Arbus exhibition blurb: https://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/about/press/press-releases/diane-arbus-beginning [last accessed 22/07/20]
  2. Neil Selkirk, “In The Darkroom”, in Diane Arbus: Revelations, New York: Jonathan Cape, 2003, pp. 267-275 (p. 270).
  3. An Influential Vision: The Collection of Ruth Ansel, Phillips, Photographs Evening & Day Sales, New York 5 & 6 October 2016: https://www.phillips.com/detail/DIANE-ARBUS/NY040216/112 [last accessed 22/07/20]
  4. Ibid.
  5. Jake Peralta, Brooklyn Nine Nine, Season 1, Episode 22
  6. The Yamakawa Collection of Twentieth Century Photographs, Christie’s Photographs Sale, New York, 6 April 2018: https://www.christies.com/lotfinder/Lot/diane-arbus-19231971-a-box-of-ten-6132048-details.aspx [last accessed 22/07/20]
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Christie’s, Photographs Sale, New York, 5 October 1999: https://www.christies.com/lotfinder/Lot/diane-arbus-a-box-of-ten-photographs-1591386-details.aspx [last accessed 22/07/20]
  10. Read more about auction-related biz elsewhere in the blog; read about the auction catalogue here and the auction catalogue cover here.


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