The latest blockbuster exhibition at the Hayward Gallery makes me nostalgic for a time I barely remember, and that will be completely alien to many who visit this show. It was a time when a single photographer could come to define a place and time, their work spanning decades, their vision becoming ingrained on the public consciousness, inextricable from the location itself.
Now that half the world carries a powerful camera in their pocket and photographs are uploaded in unfathomable numbers onto social media, I’m not sure anyone, no matter how talented, could achieve that today.
Diane Arbus is a perfect example. Her candid shots of New York City are so singular, her pictures so recognisable, that even these early works, most of which have never been displayed before in the UK, feel totally familiar.
The Hayward opts for an unconventional layout, with no clear direction to follow, encouraging visitors to mill about as they see fit, discovering the works as if by chance, the way Arbus discovered many of her subjects. The space is divided by dozens of columns, each of which has photographs on opposing sides. The result is surprisingly intimate, with little pockets of quiet, contemplative space to be found even when the gallery is busy.
Arbus catalogued the city from the mid-1950s, when it was a haven for the disenfranchised and the different. There are fragile transvestites, defiant strippers, people dying and children playing. There are corpses and circus performers, strong-men and people with disabilities.
Throughout the exhibition little messages are hidden. One reads: “All I want is what I don’t know”. It feels like a mission-statement, capturing the inquisitive nature that drove Arbus, and perhaps an acknowledgement that photography can never reveal the true nature of its subjects.
Maybe it can, however, reveal the true nature of a place. Wandering through Arbus’ works feels like taking a stroll through a 1950s New York City that’s become hyper-real, somewhere that resides in our collective minds. Seeing these pictures is like looking at the Platonic ideal upon which these cultural memories are based. It’s an experience not to be missed.