Diane Arbus: A Box of Ten Photographs at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Diane Arbus, A woman with her baby monkey, N.J., 1971. ©The Estate of Diane Arbus, courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum

In 1969, Diane Arbus decided to create an album of ten photographs that she would print on demand. Each photograph was covered with a sheet of thin vellum on which Arbus scrawled a description, and the set of ten prints was placed in a Plexiglas box that doubled as a frame. The photos were meant to be viewed one at a time. Richard Avedon and Jasper Johns each snapped up a box for $1,000.

Who are the inhabitants of the box? They are giants, transvestites, little people, nudists, twins, young Republicans of 1967, suburbanites, and, yes, even families. Her photographs have become synonymous with oddity, but what really makes them hers is how they lay bare each awkward, intimate encounter.

Consider Arbus’s photograph of twin girls in matching corduroy dresses, who regard us as we regard them. What makes it magnetic is not just the uncanniness (which she certainly courted) but the meeting itself. The left twin’s eyes are hooded with suspicion; the right twin has puppy-dog eyes you could get lost in. The photos allow you to feel what it was like to be Arbus, scanning between the faces.

Stephen Frank, Diane Arbus with her photograph Identical twins, Roselle, N.J. 1966, during a lecture at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1970. © Stephen A. Frank

I imagined the show of A Box of Ten Photographs at the Smithsonian through January 27 would try to resurrect that intimacy in all its awkwardness. I looked forward to a close encounter of the Arbus kind. But instead, the museum went the other way, focusing on the box’s phenomenal success. Artforum ran five of the ten pictures; it was the first time a photographer was featured. New York magazine ran one – the Jewish giant bending down to talk to his worried parents. In 1972, Walter Hopps picked Arbus’s album for the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale, making her the first photographer ever shown there. The exhibition at SAAM displays many of these objects – the Artforum cover, the page in New York magazine, the poster for the Biennale, and Hilton Kramer’s laudatory New York Times review.

I can see what a huge art-history moment this was, as well as the need to re-contextualize Arbus’s photographs. But it doesn’t make for a moving exhibition. The ten pictures seem like sad royalty stunned by their coronation. There’s only one object here that, for me, carries the thrill of Arbus’s original encounter, and that is the vellum sheet on which she wrote the title of her box over and over again, apparently trying, like a schoolgirl, to get the scrawl just right. It’s the trace of Arbus encountering, and making, herself.