Two legendary New York City parks are the backdrop for a select group of photographs by the iconic portrait and street photographer, Diane Arbus, at Levy Gorvy Gallery’s exhibition, Diane Arbus: In the Park. The 38 black and white images shot between 1956 and 1971 in Central Park and Washington Square Park have little to do with landscape photography and everything to do with a diverse group of characters captured in Arbus’ signature style.
Whether it is a pair of wealthy socialites, a group of “hippies” or three girls at a Puerto Rican festival, the integrity of each individual and the identity they choose to perform is treated with a refreshingly neutral and inquisitive curiosity. The return gaze of many of the subjects, along with an emotional subtlety in faces and gestures, reveals Arbus’ unique capacity to engage with strangers in an intimacy that leaves room for viewers to enter into the work.
Several of the images on view have never been seen before, including a 1965 photograph of Susan Sontag on a bench with her son; the only famous figure featured, other than Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges. However, the exhibition also includes Arbus classics, such as, Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962 – an eerie image of a young boy whose grimace for the camera is hard to read.
Although Arbus’ iconic image, Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967, is absent from the show, another image, Two girls in identical raincoats, Central Park, N.Y.C. 1969, seems to pay homage to the earlier work. Despite the fact that Identical Twins features to very young girls who are twins, and Two girls in identical raincoats features two adult young women who are not, the same close study of the images is required in order to fully appreciate the nuanced individuality of each female figure.
Interspersed throughout the two floors of the exhibition, viewers will find photographs that speak to Arbus’ appreciation for human beings who live outside socially inscribed normative ideas of being and belonging. Two friends in the park, N.Y.C., 1965 speaks to ideas on gender fluidity; A young man and his pregnant wife in Washington Square Park, N.Y.C. 1965 captures an interracial relationship; and, A very thin man in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1961 highlights an offbeat masculinity.
Unexpectedly, pleasant surprises pop up periodically as one strolls through an extremely linear presentation of Arbus’ work; isolated moments of pleasure and contentment expressed in serene photographic moments. The satisfied gentle smile on the face of a young man seated on a bench in, A young Negro boy, Washington Square Park, N.Y.C. 1965, and the wonder and awe of a child with her doll dappled in sunlight in, Girl with a doll standing in the grass, N.Y.C. 1962, come to mind. These images show another side to the work of Diane Arbus – her capacity to recognize self-acceptance and peace within her subjects.
Diane Arbus: In the Park is on view through June 24, 2017.