The exhibit, “Diane Arbus: Family Albums,” features more than 50 black-and-white photographs along with 57 contact sheets by the artist, many of which have not been shown publicly before.

“Diane Arbus: Family Albums” reveals the artist’s fascination with the complex and often contradictory notions of “family” that surfaced during the turbulent 1960s. It reflects America in the 1950s and 1960s and those who traveled on the edge of conventional society.

It is a moving show.

Walking out of the elevator onto the second floor of the Portland Museum of Art, one can’t help but be struck by Arbus’ powerful, yet disturbing photographs.

The first photograph I saw – “Child With Toy Hand Grenade In Central Park, New York City,” – made an indelible impression on my mind.

I immediately asked myself, “Who would give a child such a lethal thing to play with?”

The grotesque expression on the little boy’s face, coupled with his tight hold of the toy grenade in one hand and a distorted grasping of space with his other hand, projects anger and violence. The photograph was taken in the 1960s in New York City. What makes it so frightening is that it could have been taken in Viet Nam or Iraq, only the child might have held a real hand grenade.

The image transcends time and asks why we are giving our children such violent toys to play with. Are we helping to encourage an angry and violent generation?

Arbus once wrote that she was compiling her photos into a family album. She never completed the project. She committed suicide in 1971. This exhibit offers a glimpse of what such an album might have looked like.

Photos in the exhibit are not of the photographer’s own family. Arbus unites all kinds of people from all walks of life. In a way, all her subjects are considered family because they are united in their common humanity. The exhibit explores traditional families tied by blood, marriage or law, as well as alternative families tied by a sense of community and sharing of special bonds: similar living conditions, losses, handicaps and triumphs.

An important collection of previously unknown contact sheets and prints produced by Arbus serves as the impetus for, and nucleus, of “Family Albums.” In 1969, Arbus was commissioned by Konrad Matthaei, an actor in the long-running soap opera “As The World Turns” and owner of the prosperous Alvin Theater, to shoot portraits of his wife, Gay, and their three children. The two-day shoot took place at the Matthaei’s elegant Upper East side townhouse during a family Christmas gathering. The resulting images provide insight into the artist’s photographic strategies. They reveal a family accustomed to the spotlight of celebrity, but also vulnerable to Arbus’ inquisitive eye.

Among the women photographed by Arbus in the 1960s are some whose notoriety may not be particularly admired. One such subject is Marguerite Oswald, mother of Lee Harvey Oswald, alleged assassin of President John F. Kennedy.

Also featured in the Portland Museum of Art exhibit are portraits of entertainers and writers, including Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, Bennett Serf, Norman Mailer, Tokyo Rose, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, and such society women as Mrs. T. Charlton Henry and Brenda Diana Duff Frazier. They are sharp-edged, clear, strong and memorable. The photo of Norman Mailer in his youth is unusual and effectively captures his spontaneous, irreverent and great spirit.

Yet, it is in photographs of the downtrodden, like those titled “Pinkie Edwards Whose Name is Matilda” and “Dr. Donald E. Gatch and Addie Taylor,” that the photographer reaches visual poetry. These works are similar to the photographs of Walker Evans, whose famous photos of impoverished tenant farmers in the 1930s are milestones in photography in America. Arbus met Evans in 1961.

Also in the “Diane Arbus: Family Albums” exhibit are spreads on Arbus photographs in the New York Times magazine section and Esquire magazine. They provide the viewer with more insight into the life of this influential American photographer.

Born into a wealthy Jewish family in 1923, Arbus grew up in Manhattan. She was educated at the Ethical Culture School and the Fieldston School in New York. At age 18, she married Allan Arbus and the couple became interested in photography. Her father who owned a fashionable department store on Fifth Avenue asked the two to take advertising photos for his place of business. She and her husband did fashion photography for magazines like Vogue and Glamour in the 1950s. Once on her own, Arbus shot portraits for Esquire.

Between 1955 and 1957, Arbus studied under Lisette Model, who encouraged her to do more documentary photography. She focused on people on the streets, midgets, twins, workers in circuses, people who were mentally and physically challenged and asylum inmates.

In 1967, Arbus was one of three photographers invited to participate in the Museum of Modern Art’s influential exhibition “New Documents.” After her suicide in 1971, her Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective attracted easily as many viewers as Edward Steichen’s famous “Family of Man” exhibition in 1955, confirming Arbus’ stature in the history of photography.

I viewed “Diane Arbus: Family Albums” on a Friday evening. More than 200 people poured through the museum, and the Arbus exhibit was crowded. Arbus’ photos are definitely worth examination and a trip to Portland to see.

The exhibit will be up through Aug. 1,

The Portland Museum of Art is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday through Columbus Day; and from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday. Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for seniors and students with I.D., $2 for children 6 to 17; children under 6 admitted free. Admission is free Fridays from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Pat Davidson Reef has a master’s degree in education and has taught art history at Catherine McAuley High School in Portland. She has written two children’s books, “Dahlov Ipcar, Artist,” and “Bernard Langlais, Sculptor.” She teaches children’s literature for teacher recertification for the American Institute for Creative Education.


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