GROWING UP WEALTHY, cared for by a series of nannies, Diane Arbus wasn't exposed to the seamier side of life. Like most little girls, she was told to look away from human oddities. But she lived in New York, and curiosity got the better of her.
Her name stands for a type of photography -- weird, some might call it, but utterly sensitive, intimate, original and excruciatingly personal. In "Diane Arbus: Magazine Work 1960-1971" at the Corcoran, her photos of misfits and outcasts still fascinate. Look at them long enough, they become mirrors. She managed to bring out the eccentric in the most ordinary people. And, because she spent hours with her subjects, she could catch even Ozzie and Harriet off-guard.
Before her suicide in 1971 at age 48, Arbus published more than 250 photos in such publications as Esquire, Harper's Bazaar and the London Sunday Times Magazine. From the late 1940s to the early 1960s, she had collaborated with her husband Allan Arbus on fashion photography. She didn't fully develop her independent sight until the late '50s, when she studied under documentary photographer Lisette Model, whose grotesques made their mark on her.
Among the 79 photos in the exhibit is Arbus' first spread, "The Vertical Journey," which appeared in Esquire in July 1960. Arbus contrasted faces of the city: a soft-focused society woman at a Grand Opera Ball benefit, and the beastly "Jungle Creep," who performed his fright-show five times daily with the other freaks in Hubert's Museum on Times Square.
Her camera looked in places that were considered off-limits. As a young woman, she photographed her dead grandmother in her coffin. Later, as a professional photographer, she took pictures of bodies in a morgue. She wandered New York in the middle of the night, courting the excitement of being close to danger. She searched for the peculiar and the strange, on Coney Island and in nudist camps.
Because these are magazine photos, interspersed are celebrity photos, flashing back to the '60s: Mae West, in her soft pink boudoir and in bed with her pet monkey. A topless Viva, and other members of Andy Warhol's Factory. Anderson Hays Cooper, who had the distinction of being Gloria Vanderbilt's baby, in a bizarre closeup that is a takeoff on baby pictures: He becomes a mask -- a moon, a Hitchcock. Poets, artists, feminists, Charles Atlas, Rudolf Nureyev, Blaze Starr and Tiny Tim are seen, not starkly against a plain backdrop in Richard Avedon style, but in their studios, their homes, their bedrooms.
Every photo tells a complete story, rich in detail. Arbus photos published in Esquire for the 1968 article "Let Us Now Praise Dr. Gatch" spoke louder than the story. The camera reveals the squalor in a poverty- stricken community in South Carolina where a country dotor crusaded against hunger: A family's children, some scarred or deformed, crowd into a room with newspapers on the walls; and a poor, dirty couple sit with their clean baby who is wearing shiny new shoes.
A year after her death, a major retrospective of Arbus' work opened at the Museum of Modern Art. She'd exhibited only three times in her lifetime, and always in group shows. This is the first exhibition of her magazine work.
DIANE ARBUS: MAGAZINE WORK, 1960-1971 -- At the Corcoran through August 25.