At The Met Breuer, through November 27, 2016:
Diane Arbus: In the Beginning
At the Whitney, through September 25, 2016:
Danny Lyon: Message to the Future
In the new-normal virtual world, b & w darkroom prints are increasing compelling in their accrued aesthetic objecthood–including technical variation–which both exhibitions exemplify and further.
The ubiquity of Arbus’s most famous images and related commentary, not to mention her dramatic bio (1923-1971/suicide), weighed heavily upon approach; yet, very soon I was absorbed in her/my journey–from tentative to provocative “art” photography. This was facilitated by the ingenious installation (worth seeing in itself), which lined up rectangular columns through the main viewing space, hypostyle-like, each displaying one work on each side. The unusual alternative to the typical horizon-line ordering of small-scale photo shows disrupted preconception in general; and also: mimicked the action of the individual photo shot; evoked a Surrealist-tinged maze apropos of Arbus’s marginalized or else mainstream-transformed-to-slightly-sinister-through-the-viewfinder subjects; and offered flexible viewing paths. Given that the bulk of work included dates from within a dozen years before her prematurely final images, a triumphant selection of which was featured in an exiting gallery, chronology was somewhat beside the point–even the attention to thematic placement was not essential–it’s all postwar New York. The point was to illuminate, broadly, the break from her commercial studio career with her husband in the mid-1950s in pursuit of her art–at least as conceived within the realm of photography at the time. (Work produced on various assignments was not necessarily excluded.) It’s a captivating glimpse into that fiercely precocious (as a photographer and woman) foray, driven by a cache of never before exhibited work.
Coney Island carnivalesque–“freak” shows, the wax museum, and the like–was a magnetic draw for the quirky Arbus and the photographic encounters here seem to encompass an intended mix of a sympathetic and artistic, even expressionistic, eye, with selective truth-is-stranger-than fiction documentation, climactic in her famous pictures. Elsewhere, uptown grotesques, Mad Men-midtown scenarios, the downtown demimonde, and urban street urchins link her variously to more conventionally journalistic predecessors and peers. Her compositions are often from head-on perspectives, with undertones of an “exposé” aesthetic. In places, I thought of Nan Golden; in others, especially the suburban pictures, Gregory Crewdson; also Carrie Mae Weems, among other photographers emerging in the mid-1990s in the context of a broader contemporary art world who have focused on the tropes, trappings, and relative truth of documentary photography.
Danny Lyon (b. 1942) has had a brilliant, prolific career from the early 1960s in the documentary realm, imbuing straight images with emphatically committed partisan politics. This passion came through early in his insider, close-up Civil Rights work, and later in several near-anthropological series in which he took an “embedded” approach, cutting edge at the time–e.g., motorcycle bikers, prison life, a foray into rural Columbia.
However, the bulk of small pictures in the humongous Whitney galleries gets . . . difficult . . . as a manageable whole. While the show was organized by FAMSanFran, and the Whitney curators broke up string-course rows of photos (the usual, as noted above) with intermittent, free form arrangements, the installation still needed a bit more . . . editing (? – something) to be both engaging in the moment and memorable–despite the power of many individual prints.
A “bulletin board”-type display of media images culled by Lyon, illustrating his professed visual and conceptual thinking, segues to some collage and montage work–fairly basic to methods and extra-curricula experiments of many photographers. Other artsy (not in a bad way) works incorporate language–mainly expressions of freedom and the perpetual questioning of the post-Kerouac on-the-road/looking-for-America counter-culture.
The Civil Rights work will be of particular interest to specialists delineating the extent and nature of the many peer contributors to the cause; and there is a good amount of ephemera throughout for those with scholarly interests related to Lyon and the documentary field in the decades covered. For the laity: brief prep/background and patience will be rewarded.
For those with a whole lot of time and/or inclination after making it through the expansive photographic display, there are several of Lyon’s feature-length films on view (within the exhibition – with seating). I didn’t have either – although, after the latter, I will be looking into some of his film work (one way or another).