Exciting Diane Arbus Show to Debut at SFMOMA

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Diane Arbus, Taxicab driver at the wheel with two passengers, N.Y.C.1956
Diane Arbus, Taxicab driver at the wheel with two passengers, N.Y.C.1956

Photo Credit: courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York / copyright © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All rights reserved

Since the SFMOMA reopened last May, it’s hosted three photography shows in the new Pritzker Center for Photography. However, the most thrilling exhibit to debut thus far arrives on January 21. It’s the first time in 13 years that an entire exhibit of Diane Arbus’s extraordinary work will be on display. However, it’s not just any old photographs, the show focuses on pieces from early on in her career. Diane Arbus: In the Beginning will be on view from the 21st until April 30, 2017. The collection of images was organized by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, specifically its curator in charge of the department of photography, Jeff Rosenheim, and features the first seven years of Arbus’s professional life as a photographer, from 1956 to 1962. The show consists of over 100 pictures—many of which will be shown to the public for the first time. Since the SFMOMA is the only other American venue that will present this exhibition, we reached out to Corey Keller the museum’s curator of photography to learn more about this significant anthology of Arbus’s images. Here is how our conversation went down.

Diane Arbus, Kid in a hooded jacket aiming a gun, N.Y.C.1957
Diane Arbus, Kid in a hooded jacket aiming a gun, N.Y.C.1957

Photo Credit: courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York / copyright © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All rights reserved

Why is it important to present this collection of Arbus’s early works? 

Looking at Arbus’s early work gives us a new and perhaps unfamiliar perspective of an artist whose work is so well known that certain images have become iconic. It’s both inspiring and instructive to see how she chose her subjects and honed her craft over several years.

What pieces are most noteworthy? 

I think they’re all rather extraordinary in their own way.

The collection first debuted at the MET in New York? How did SFMOMA come to be the only other American museum that is able to display it? 

SFMOMA has a close working relationship with the Met, a longstanding commitment to photography, and a history of collecting and exhibiting Arbus’s work, most notably the 2003 retrospective exhibition Diane Arbus Revelations. It seemed like a natural fit for the exhibition to travel to San Francisco.

How can young photographers learn from an exhibit like this one? 

Arbus had immense natural talent, but I think to a young photographer it would also be exciting to see the curiosity, fearlessness, and persistence with which Arbus pursued her craft. Over the first seven years of her career, she discovered what ignited her imagination and explored those subjects in great depth and with terrific intensity. It’s wonderful to watch such a legendary artist as she develops her own voice.

Diane Arbus, Elderly woman whispering to her dinner partner, Grand Opera Ball, N.Y.C.1959
Diane Arbus, Elderly woman whispering to her dinner partner, Grand Opera Ball, N.Y.C.1959

Photo Credit: courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York / copyright © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All rights reserved

With smartphones and apps like Instagram, everyone is a photographer these days. How do you think this is changing the world of photography? 

One of the best things the explosion of digital photography has done is to make more people aware of the medium, and of the kind of choices an artist makes when framing and taking a photograph. They get a more hands-on experience with the medium than they might with something like painting or sculpture, for example. On the other hand, the quantity of images being produced at this moment in time is rather overwhelming, and can be difficult to sift through and make sense of.

The new SFMOMA has an entire floor dedicated to photography. Why is this medium so important to the museum? 

Photography has been a key  part of SFMOMA’s program since it opened its doors in 1935. Our first exhibition at the museum was a photography show, and the earliest works to enter the collection were made by the community of modernist photographers working in the Bay Area, including Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, among others. Ansel Adams was a key advisor to our first director. But photography and San Francisco have been intertwined since the gold rush, when daguerreotypists joined the miners looking to make their fortune. Since the museum’s founding, the collection has grown to nearly 18,000 objects – the largest at the museum – and spans the entire history of the medium, from its invention in 1839 to the present day. The new large galleries and study and interpretive spaces in SFMOMA’s Pritzker Center for Photography give architectural form to our commitment to the medium.

What other big photography exhibits are planned for 2017? 

We have several exciting photography shows planned for 2017. A retrospective of California artist Larry Sultan’s work, Larry Sultan: Here and Home, will be on view from April 15 to July 23, 2017. Opening one month later, Mike Mandel: Good 70s will be the first major museum exhibition of conceptual artist and frequent Sultan collaborator, Mike Mandel. This fall, Walker Evans: A Vernacular Style will examine the major 20th-century photographer’s fascination with vernacular culture.

 

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