Those who missed the exhibit’s Big Apple appearance might consider a long weekend here, where they can now view the exhibit of Arbus’ gritty black-and-white images at the Victoria and Albert Museum, through Jan. 15. Featuring almost 200 photographs taken from Arbus’ estate, as well as from public and private collections, the latest exhibition is the first major showing of her work since 1972, the year after her death, when a retrospective was held at MoMA.
Arbus was obsessed with breaking down the wall between normal and abnormal. She would find a freakish character and show how mundane his life really was, or she’d photograph a person who seemed like the paradigmatic example of normalcy, and capture instead how he was fraying at the edges.
For example, in “Young Man in Curlers at Home on West 20th Street, 1966” a very unconvincing drag queen with manicured nails and finely painted-on eyebrows holds a cigarette and stares blankly at the camera. In “The 1938 Debutante of the Year at home, Boston, Mass., 1966” a faded, former deb, fully made up, also with a cigarette, lounges on her bed among pale silk sheets.
“Thirty years on, Arbus’ work is still very fresh-looking and dynamic,” said Martin Barnes, curator of photographs at the V&A. “Though our ideas of what is public and what is private have changed, the intensity and rawness of her photographs still make you feel as if you are looking at a private moment.”
This tension between the public and the private is another important aspect of Arbus’ photographs; many of them show her subjects in intimate situations. “Retired Man and His Wife at Home at a Nudist Camp One Morning, N.J., 1963” shows an elderly couple photographed naked in their light-filled sitting room. Despite the obvious exposure, there is nothing voyeuristic (nor sexy) about the picture, as they pose deliberately, gazing directly at the camera. And they don’t seem like sex maniacs. They seem quaint, almost boring.