diane arbus's surreal photos of strange encounters in nyc parks
A new exhibition of the photographer's work unites Diane's iconic images and haunting portraits with work being exhibited for the first time.
A young man and his pregnant wife in Washington Square Park, N.Y.C. 1965, © The Estate of Diane Arbus
Soon after quitting commercial photography in 1956, Diane Arbus started doing what any New Yorker fresh out of a day job might do: walking through a lot of parks. One of her very first photos as a serious artist shows six well-dressed strangers sitting on a park bench, shaded by a mountain of Manhattan schist. Throughout her career, the city's grassy arenas for interaction and reflection were hers de facto office. Through it filtered businessmen, butch lesbians, homeless junkies, teen lovers, and Susan Sontag. A photo shown for the very first time in Lévy Gorvy's new exhibition In the Park — the first show to focus solely on Arbus's Central Park and Washington Square photos — shows Sontag sharing an intimate bench moment with her son in 1965. The most well-known photo is the surreal, discomforting Child With a Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, shot that same year.
What drew Arbus to the park was its ability to break down class concerns and self-consciousness. If there were barriers, they certainly weren't set in stone. "It has these walks," Arbus wrote of working in Washington Square Park in 1966, "sort of like a sunburst, and there were these territories staked out. There were young hippie junkies down one row. There were lesbians down another, really tough amazingly hard-core lesbians. And in the middle were winos. They were like the first echelon and the girls who came from the Bronx to become hippies would have to sleep with the winos to get to sit on the other part with the junkie hippies… I was very keen to get close to them, so I had to ask to photograph them."
The last photo in the exhibition is of a young couple holding hot dogs, taken the year of Arbus's death in 1971. But while In the Park spans the duration of Arbus's short post-Vogue career, the show isn't chronological. The consistent thread is her subjects' incredible humanness, and of course the park itself, which you'll probably look at differently next time you walk through it.
Diane Arbus: In the Park is on view at New York's Lévy Gorvy gallery until June 24, 2017.
Text Hannah Ongley
Photography Diane Arbus