The Pick: Mercer Union’s Diane Arbus retrospective, a glimpse at the birth of the modern magazine

The Pick: Mercer Union’s Diane Arbus retrospective, a glimpse at the birth of the modern magazine

Pierre Leguillon’s Diane Arbus retrospective as displayed at Malmö’s Moderna Museet (Image: Courtesy Mercer Union) 

Diane Arbus was as much a voyeur as an artist, famously focusing her lens on the fringes of ’60s society—freaks, transvestites, mystics, bohemians. “You know how every mother worries that their baby will be a monster? Well, I think I got that on film,” she once said about one of her photographs, titled, with perfect deadpan, “Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx.” It’s that precise ambiguity—between intimacy and prying—that makes them as striking and unsettling today as they were half a century ago.

Of course, Arbus’s photos have so often been removed from their context. Sure, in galleries and coffee table books, they might make for jarring, standalone works of art that don’t shy away from offering a point of view on their subjects. But Arbus’s photos were for the most part magazine commissions—she published her work in Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire and the New Yorker alongside articles by New Journalism titans like Norman Mailer and Thomas B. Morgan, and in the process she shattered the rules of editorial photography. A new exhibit opening on Friday at Mercer Union, curated by French artist Pierre Leguillon, showcases a number of Arbus’s most iconic works in their original contexts—as fashion spreads, photo essays and, most notably, visual complements to long-form journalism.

On their own, Arbus’s photos are the kind that could put writers out of work: her subjects are fully rendered characters, their stories laid bare in a single frame. But in this installation view, they come to life in an entirely new way. Her shots of “jungle creep” Hezekiah Trambles and socialites Flora Knapp Dickinson and Mrs. Dagmar Patino are fascinating enough as portraits; in a series, they chronicle the city’s social heights and chasms. A shot of Norman Mailer splayed against the ropes of a boxing ring gains a whole new meaning when viewed alongside his Esquire manifesto taking on the works of his contemporaries. And Sandra Hochman’s treacly poem “Love Song to the Unborn” in Harper’s Bazaar is eerily set off by an image of the infant Anderson Cooper, bloated and corpse-like. The exhibit is about Arbus’s body of work, but it also captures a singular moment: the birth of the modern magazine, with words and pictures synthesized in a brand new way into a cohesive whole.

The details: Jan. 20 to March 10. Free. Mercer Union, 1286 Bloor St. W., 416-536-1519, mercerunion.org