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September 12 , 2003

A Family Affair: Arbus Photos Come to Art Museum

Diane Arbus, Untitled
(Marcella Matthaei),
1969. Matthaei Collection of Commissioned Family Photographs by Diane Arbus ©Marcella Hague Matthaei Ziesman

New York photographer Diane Arbus is perhaps best known for her photographs from the 1960s and 1970s of people who were viewed as outside the mainstream—dwarves, couples at a nudist colony, the mentally ill. For many of her magazine assignments and private commissions, Arbus also photographed “ordinary” people and celebrities, but in her hands even the most benign subject could strike an unsettling note. It is almost impossible to respond to an Arbus photograph with indifference.

Diane Arbus: Family Albums,
a major traveling exhibition developed by the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum in collaboration with the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas, offers an excellent introduction to Arbus’s work. Cocurated by Mount Holyoke associate professor of art history Anthony Lee and John Pultz, associate professor of art history at the University of Kansas and curator of photography at the Spencer Museum, the exhibition presents dozens of prints as well as more than 50 contact sheets. A book authored by Lee and Pultz, which was published by Yale University Press, accompanies it.

Late in her life Arbus, who was twice a Guggenheim fellow and the first American photographer to be included in the Venice Biennale, had begun creating a kind of family album. But it was left unfinished when she committed suicide in 1971. “It was not an album in the commonplace sense of that word, in that it was not meant to contain pictures of her immediate family,” Lee explained in a recent conversation with museum director Marianne Doezema. He and Pultz intended Diane Arbus: Family Albums “as a glimpse of what such an album might have looked like had she brought it to fruition.”

The project began in 1999, when Mount Holyoke alumna Gay Humphrey Matthaei ’52 contacted the museum about photographs Arbus had taken of her family. Seeing them, museum staff and Lee were instantly excited. Said Lee, “I had never seen so many photographs of a single shoot by Arbus and was immediately struck by their huge importance.” Mount Holyoke then approached the Spencer Museum, which has a strong Arbus collection, and eventually the two institutions agreed to collaborate.

“All families are creepy in a way,” Arbus wrote to a friend in 1968. Lee said that as he and Pultz studied Arbus’s work, they were amazed to find how many photographs “were devoted to families and family members: fathers, mothers, children, partners, in all kinds of arrangements.” The exhibition includes the 1971 portraits she made for Esquire of the “perfect” television family the Nelsons, a fascinating 1965 series of teenagers and their parents, and contact sheets and two gelatin silver prints of her 1964 session photographing Marguerite Oswald, mother of alleged John F. Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. It also includes prints and contact sheets from two days in 1969 when she photographed a Matthaei family reunion.

Some of the Matthaei photographs are of a daughter, Marcella Matthaei, a girl on the cusp of adolescence. Although many shots in the contact sheets show Marcella interacting with her parents and siblings, Arbus also repeatedly photographed her alone, isolated against a curtained window or a paneled wall. In Untitled (Marcella Matthaei), we see her in a lacy sleeveless dress, standing stiffly with her arms at her sides, her face expressionless, her eyes and their large dark pupils nearly hidden beneath thick bangs. The more we look at the photo, the less we learn about Marcella, who reveals little of her inner life to the camera. The Matthaei series contains many intriguing photographs, but those of Marcella, in their sense of isolation and unknowability, are by far the most riveting.

Lectures and gallery talks about the exhibition are scheduled throughout September and October. The first, by John Szarkowski, a photographer and director emeritus of the Museum of Modern Art’s photography department, takes place Thursday, September 18, at 7 pm in the Art Building’s Gamble Auditorium. Szarkowski, who organized the first major retrospective of Arbus’s work at MoMA in 1972, will speak on the topic “Diane Arbus as a Photographer.” A reception will follow.

Other talks include “Diane Arbus at the Five Colleges, 1971,” by photographer Jerome Liebling, Thursday, September 25, 4 pm, Weissman Gallery; “Searching for Diane Arbus’s ‘Family Album,’” by John Pultz, Thursday, October 2, 4 pm, Weissman Gallery; “Family Portraits and Fascination,” by Sandra Matthews, associate professor, film and photography, Hampshire College, Thursday, October 16, 4 pm, Weissman Gallery; and “Making Arbus Strange: History, Time, and Memory in the Arbus Archive,” by Laura Wexler, professor, American studies, and chair, women’s and gender studies, Yale University, Thursday, October 23, 7 pm, Gamble Auditorium.

Now through October 30, members of the Mount Holyoke community may submit their own family photos for posting in the Mount Holyoke Family Photos exhibition in the museum lobby. This exhibition will be on view from September 16 through November 2. And a poetry reading on Thursday, November 13, at 7 pm in the Warbeke Gallery, will feature published poets as well as winners of a student poetry contest on the theme of family. For information about the contest, which will be juried by Robert Shaw, professor of English, and Leah Glasser, dean of first-year studies and lecturer in English, call x2245.

Diane Arbus: Family Albums
continues through December 7.
For more information, visit the art museum’s Web site.

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