Critics’ Picks

View of “Diane Arbus: DARK ROOM,” 2021.

View of “Diane Arbus: DARK ROOM,” 2021.

New York

Diane Arbus

anonymous gallery | New York
136 Baxter Street
September 10–October 9, 2021

How are we meant to look at what we were never meant to see? This is the unavoidable question raised by “DARK ROOM,” a surprising show of seventeen proof prints made in preparation for Diane Arbus’s posthumous 1972 retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. These objects—somewhere between priceless ephemera and pricey works of art—are the photographic equivalents of a late draft, offering us a peek behind the scenes at some of photography’s most iconic images (such as Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967, and A naked man being a woman, Md., 1970) before they received their final polish. This “peek” is, without a doubt, a privileged one, as the Arbus estate has been notoriously protective of the photographer’s work since her suicide in 1971. 

But after one gets past the unique nature of these prints and their somewhat gimmicky presentation—the gallery’s usual white lights have been swapped out for classic darkroom red—we are, once again, forced to confront and consider Arbus’s oeuvre. It’s an intellectual exercise that occurs pretty much every time her work goes up on a wall. Critics, fans, and detractors all must grapple with more than just her art, but her controversial approach, with words like exploitation, fetishization, and voyeurism often getting thrown around. I would argue, though, that many of the hot takes on Arbus’s legacy that have been made over the years—Susan Sontag’s 1973 essay “Freak Show” being the undisputed hottest—often tell us more about society at that moment than they do about Arbus. And further, it’s possible this particular exhibition, with its dressed-down guerrilla style, offers a rare opportunity to view these images without immediately slipping back into well-worn conversations about their politics.

“DARK ROOM” injects an element of vulnerability to Arbus’s side of the equation. The proof prints, some marked with visible annotations, are clearly works in progress, and leave her more exposed than usual, more unguarded. Standing in the gallery, I couldn’t help but wonder if (or hope that) this helps balance out the heavily scrutinized power dynamic between Arbus and her subjects. After all, she framed them in states of literal and metaphorical undress. It seems somehow fair and maybe even a little useful that an exhibition returns the favor.