Up until the Impressionists, painting was – and still is, to a certain extent – an activity in which we fold the world and our imagination onto the still plane of the canvas.
Only the hand navigates its surface. When the painters of light left their studios to roam the cities and scour the countryside, they unknowingly invented what nascent cinema and photography would come to be. With the miniaturization of cameras in the 1920s, photography borrowed from the Impressionists this penchant for elsewhere, for the outdoors.
The photography of Diane Arbus is the result of this tireless search, the sum of countless hours of walking, dictated as much by the element of chance as by the indescribable intuition of instinct. As much as the result of her work appears precise, well-framed, and coherent, her off-camera is chaotic, organic, and scattered to the four corners of the city. This off-camera is a network of paths that intersect and draw, like a spider’s web, hundreds of points on the map all linked together by a unique desire for poetic revelation. It is precisely this cartography across time and space that interests us here.
How to present simultaneously the images and the off-camera inherent to each of them? It isn’t only the physical displacement of the artist that is important, but also the movement of her gaze, which in reality glides here and there. A face, a detail, an attitude, a particularity: these were what Diane Arbus’s eyes focused on in order to envisage the photographic potential of her subjects.
After Diane Arbus’s death in 1971, Neil Selkirk – a student of hers and an advisor to her on certain technical issues – began printing for the Arbus Estate and is the only person, since the artists’s death, authorized to make prints from her negatives. Over the course of more than thirty years, Selkirk retained a single printer’s proof of those images. In 2011 LUMA acquired Selkirk’s set of printer’s proofs. This collection is in itself a monument to the history of photography.
The exhibition Constellation brings together all of the prints (some still unpublished) from the Selkirk set of 454 images in the form of an immersive installation. In this exhibition, we wanted to present an extra-photographic dimension to these images: to reveal what lies between the pictures; what, like dark matter, keeps all of these photographs in equilibrium and connects them to each other – the spider’s web. The concept of a constellation occurred to us as a structure capable of presenting both the images and the imperceptible architecture underlying all creations: chance, chaos, and exploration. Thus, there are no tour directions or instructions for Constellation. Like Diane Arbus in New York, the viewer is invited to wander, pass by, go around and across. There isn’t a standard route, but an infinite number of possibilities. Visitors can each create their own unique experience in this unconventional and original presentation.
This exhibition is presented in partnership with Les Rencontres d’Arles.
Diane Arbus is one of the most original and influential photographers of the twentieth century. She studied photography with Berenice Abbott, Alexey Brodovitch, and Lisette Model and had her first published photographs appear in Esquire in 1960. In 1963 and 1966 she was awarded John Simon Guggenheim Fellowships and was one of three photographers whose work was the focus of New Documents, John Szarkowski’s landmark exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in 1967. Arbus’s depictions of couples, children, female impersonators, nudists, New York City pedestrians, suburban families, circus performers, and celebrities, among others, span the breadth of the postwar American social sphere and constitute a diverse and singularly compelling portrait of humanity. A year after her death, her work was selected for inclusion in the Venice Biennale, the first time any photographer had been so honored.
In the ensuing fifty years, major traveling museum retrospectives have been mounted by the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1972), the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2003), the Jeu de Paume, Paris (2011) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2016), and the Art Gallery of Ontario (2020).
Books devoted to her work include: Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph (1972), Magazine Work (1984), Untitled (1995), Revelations (2003), The Libraries (2004), A Chronology (2011), Silent Dialogues (2015), In the Beginning (2016), A Box of Ten Photographs (2018), and Documents (2022).
In addition to the museums mentioned above, significant collections of her work can be found in numerous institutions throughout the world. The Bibliothèque Nationale de France was an early collector, and the Centre Pompidou followed.