An exhibition of early works by influential and controversial 20th-century photographer Diane Arbus at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art includes many superb pictures never before seen publicly.
“Diane Arbus: In the Beginning” contains more than 100 images shot from 1956 to 1962 by Arbus, who, until her death in 1971, took bold and sometimes disquieting pictures of children, oddballs, circus performers, drag artists and others marginalized by society — people with whom she established personal relationships.
“She was a great picture maker, a great portraitist,” said Jeff Rosenheim, curator of the exhibit, which originated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Speaking at last week’s press preview, Rosenheim, author of a book on Arbus’ early works, described the photos both as reflections of Arbus’ developing style, which some have called revolutionary, and as exceptional pieces in their own right.
Wanting to do something more meaningful than serve as art director for the fashion-photography business she and her husband were running, Arbus became a street photographer in 1986.
Taking the advice of photographer-teacher Lisette Model, she bucked convention and formed emotional relationships with her subjects, which she considered more important than the pictures themselves.
Using a 35mm camera until 1962 — when she switched to her familiar square, more detailed format — Arbus, in these early years produced grainy rectangular images of people she encountered on the streets of her native New York City and thereabouts — individuals who consented to be photographed and, sometimes in surprising ways, returned her gaze.
Conservatively dressed women and children are among her early subjects.
In “Woman on the Street With Her Eyes Closed, N.Y.C. (1956),” the subject is a captivating, mysterious figure engaged in the act of being photographed, even though she cannot see the camera.
“Girl With a Pointy Hood and White Schoolbag at the Curb, N.Y.C. (1957)” illustrates Arbus’ interest in children not as cute or angelic, but as puzzling little beings occupying their own space.
“Woman With White Gloves and a Pocketbook, N.Y.C. (1956)” and “Taxicab Driver at the Wheel With Two Passengers, N.Y.C. (1956)” are among the previously unknown early Arbus portraits in the show.
Additional subjects include side-show performers, strippers and others whose appearance, mental state or way of living landed them on society’s margins.
Debunking critics accusing her of making “freak show” art, or of infusing her own dark qualities (Arbus experienced severe depression and eventually committed suicide) into her portrayals, these works reveal Arbus as a complicated artist drawn to eccentrics and misfits, whom she often presented as deeply human.
She visited her subjects’ houses and learned their life stories. She compelled the viewer to look at the faces in her pictures.
“Jack Dracula at a bar, New London, Conn. (1961),” featuring a heavily tattooed circus artist, is among such works.
Also on exhibit are several post-35mm, square-format works by Arbus, including the well-known “Child With Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. (1962),” an example of her ability to direct her subjects to behave, in this case disturbingly, for her camera.
The show also includes works by her contemporaries and artists she admired: Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Helen Levitt and Weegee.
IF YOU GO
Diane Arbus: In the Beginning
Where: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, third floor, 151 Third St., S.F.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (except closed Wednesdays and until 9 p.m. Thursdays); closes April 30
Admission: $19 to $25; free for ages 18 and younger
Contact: (415) 357-4000, www.sfmoma.org