A quote from photographer Diane Arbus rests above one of her featured photographs in the Met Breuer’s new retrospective of her earliest work: "A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.” Indeed, the more time spent in the unique design of the installation, the greater the feeling that the pictured individuals in Arbus’ portraits seem to be whispering secrets to the visitor. 

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Based off a sketch made on a napkin almost a year ago by Jeff Rosenheim, chief curator of photography for the Met, “Diane Arbus: In the Beginning” is mainly housed in one large room filled with sporadic floor-to-ceiling columns. Each column is home to only one photograph on each side. As a result of this setup, visitors create a meandering path of their own choosing — marking no official beginning or end to the exhibit. Isolating the photographs provides the opportunity to view each on its own, forging a one-on-one interaction between the viewer and the subject. 

What's revealed in the nearly 100 photographs on view, most of them taken on a 35mm camera, is the eccentric underside of New York City society. When Arbus took her camera to the streets in the 1950s and '60s, seeking the realness missing from her career as a fashion photographer for Vogue and other magazines, she focused mostly on the unnoticed members of the city including circus performers, children and cross-dressers. 

“While [Arbus’ contemporaries] were hunting for an image, staying largely detached from their subjects, Arbus was looking for the poignancy of a direct, personal encounter,” explains Rosenheim. “This longing to know, this curiosity about the hidden nature of who or what she was photographing, coupled with her belief in the power of the camera to make that visible, is above all what sets her apart.” 

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One of the photographs, “Elderly woman whispering to her dance partner” from 1959, exemplifies this feeling of intimacy and secrets evoked by the installation and contained within Arbus’ work. It depicts what the title describes: a brief glimpse at a moment of hushed conversation. What they're saying is unknowable, but Arbus made sure to invite the interpretation of the viewer. 

Arbus, a talented writer as well as artist, was once quoted as saying, “The subject of my pictures is always more important than the picture, and more complicated.” This exhibition, with its idiosyncratic design and the intimate connection Arbus creates between viewer and subject, is a fitting tribute to that idea. 

Diane Arbus: In the Beginning
July 12-Nov. 27
The Met Breuer, 945 Madison Ave. 
$25 suggested admission