New York-born photographer Diane Arbus did not foresee the fame she would garner after her signature style cemented her as one of the most important figures in American photography.
In fact, most reports describe the photographer as shying away from fame. She preferred shooting photographs by herself, lugging multiple cameras and equipment around the city. Not one to draw boundaries, she possessed a knack for gaining her subjects' trust and taking intimate photos of them in their homes. She even stripped down to take photos at nudist camps and beaches.
This attitude gave her portraits a genuine quality that is still relevant today. Decades after she began photographing, her work keeps her name well-known. On Thursday, Fahey/Klein Gallery here in L.A. launched an exhibit of a few of her pieces never seen by the public. The rare photographs can from two private collectors, some signed by Arbus' daughter Doon.
While she shot photographs for fashion magazines Arbus also wandered the streets in search of outcasts and less common subjects. The gelatin silver prints in this show possess the antique look of film photography but the subjects — save for giveaways like one trendy woman's cat eye glasses — feel familiar even today. Arbus captures images like the waning movie star struggling to hold onto her beauty, and the cuddling couple sitting at the local park. And the photographs with less common figures still intrigue; even today, few art shows include photos of a hermaphrodite at home or a topless waitress working in a nudist camp.
The collection even includes photos of James Brown, one showing the singer looking upwards with a strange look on his face as a pair of hands fix his hair. The image contradicts the loud persona of Brown, letting the viewer in on the moment when he seems unaware or uncaring about the camera in front of him. It's easy to point this work out as an Arbus photograph because it's unexpected. Yet the portrait feels almost softer, as if Arbus somehow pitied the star's status.
Fahey/Klein's show serves as a reminder of Arbus' abnormal way of framing the world but also of the power her photographs will continue to hold. Today, as in decades ago, viewers might not approve of her subject matter but they'll sure be looking at her work.
The show runs until May 28, 2013. Fahey/Klein Gallery is located on 148 N. La Brea Ave., Hancock Park. faheykleingallery.com.