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The Art Gallery of Ontario has organized a tasteful, chronological display of 150 images that track the artist’s rapid development as a ground-breaking portraitist and street photographer

Untitled (49), 1970-1971.Diane Arbus/Estate of Diane Arbus

Perhaps, half a century after the New York artist Diane Arbus shot her notorious photographs of noble freak-show performers and deluded Fifth Avenue socialites, it is finally time to consider her oeuvre dispassionately as a central achievement in postwar art. Certainly, the Art Gallery of Ontario thinks so. The gallery, which acquired a trove of Arbus photographs in 2017, has organized a tasteful, chronological display of 150 images that track the artist’s rapid development as a ground-breaking portraitist and street photographer. It’s an exhibition that makes little reference to her sad biography, the critical disagreements over her work or the awkward position in which she may place her viewers.

And yet, surely it is that awkwardness that draws us back to Arbus: The creepy similarity of the twins in their party dresses and white collars, the painful folly of a veiled matron photographed too close, the wary hostility of three Puerto Rican women captured outside a restaurant. Arbus pioneered a new dance among photographer, sitter and viewer, introducing an acute subjectivity to portrait photography, and even today that three-step is seldom easy or smooth.

In 2017, after lengthy negotiations with the Arbus estate, the AGO became the second-largest depository of her work after the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which holds her archives. A total of 522 photographs were purchased by Canadian philanthropists Phil Lind, Sandra Simpson, Jay Smith, Robin and David Young, and one anonymous person, and then donated to the gallery.

Three female impersonators, N.Y.C., 1962.Diane Arbus/Estate of Diane Arbus

Working in the early days of art photography, Arbus did not issue numbered editions of her work. About half of these images are prints she made herself at the time; the others are posthumous prints executed by Neil Selkirk, the only person who has permission to work from her negatives since her death by suicide in 1971. So, it’s a rare collection that includes some very familiar images – those twins, the grimacing little boy holding a toy hand grenade in Central Park; Russian midget friends in a living room on 100th Street – and some new discoveries. In what is, revealingly, the first exhibition to simply present Arbus’s work in chronological order, AGO curator Sophie Hackett follows her career from 1956, when she began her own photography project separate from the commercial studio she operated with her husband Allan Arbus, up to her death 15 years later at the age of 48.

The early photographs show her searching about before she adapted the square format (of a Rolleiflex camera), sharp high-contrast style and frank presentation that would become her signatures. A grainy image of a couple caught in the midst of a nasty squabble shot on Cooney Island in 1960 might have been captured by a sly street photographer of an earlier era: That sense that the viewer is eavesdropping on urban life is unusual as Arbus increasingly built up relations with her sitters and asked them to pose in what became a conscious form of social anthropology. She described it as such in a 1962 application for a Guggenheim fellowship for a project titled American Rites, Manners and Customs, arguing “ … what is ceremonious and curious and commonplace will be legendary.”

Teenage couple on Hudson Street, N.Y.C., 1963.Diane Arbus/Estate of Diane Arbus

As early as 1958-60, Arbus was asking “female impersonators” (as she called them) to pose in their dressing rooms before donning their fancy gowns, and shooting the bearded lady at Hubert’s Dime Museum and Flea Circus. Perhaps it was her switch, in 1962, from a 35 mm camera to the Rolleiflex, which required the photographer to look down into the box rather than point the camera right at them, that seduced her subjects yet further. By the mid-sixties, her unflinching portraits of nudists, burlesque entertainers and cross-dressers were demanding the viewer overcome titillation or fear to recognize the courage and pride in these outcasts.

Eventually, they would earn her a reputation as a humanist who was normalizing the marginalized: Today, in an era more comfortable with non-conforming identities and more cautious about discrimination, many of these photographs read as prescient and empathetic.

The eccentricity of their subject matter can sometimes make you miss their formal achievements, too, the inventiveness of their compositions and the painstaking observation of detail whether in revealing environmental portraits or confrontational closeups.

Puerto Rican woman with a beauty mark, N.Y.C. 1965.Diane Arbus/Estate of Diane Arbus

And yet, that remarkable eye – Arbus had originally worked as the stylist for her husband’s commercial shoots – was sometimes determined to make subjects look their worst, particularly if they came from the upper and middle rather than lower reaches of society. Writer Norman Mailer, manspreading himself all over an armchair for a magazine portrait, seems appropriately hoisted by his own macho pride, but one wonders what it is the feminist writer Germaine Greer has done to deserve an extreme closeup that makes her look blotchy and unhappy. Arbus even said of their session that Greer was “fun and terrific looking, but I managed to make [her] otherwise.” It was this approach that made Susan Sontag the photographer’s fiercest critic, arguing her work was voyeuristic and condescending.

Certainly, on the street and in the parks, it’s the very rare subject who emerges unscathed from an encounter with Arbus’s camera. A Young Negro Boy, Washington Square Park, N.Y.C., one of her many portraits shot in that vibrant 1960s gathering place, is notable for the calm and beauty of the teenage sitter, shown alongside studies of mismatched couples, overdressed ladies or awkward families.

This can take the viewer into particularly difficult territory as Arbus began photographing adults with intellectual disabilities at state institutions in New Jersey in 1969, access that included several holiday festivals when the residents were costumed. Hackett has chosen not to group these works together, but to distribute them about the latter section of the show; this respects their actual chronological order, but it also serves to dilute any sense of exploitation. Still, their range of effects and attitudes explains why Arbus can so divide critics and confuse viewers.

Mrs. Martin Luther King, Jr. on her front lawn, Atlanta, Ga. 1968.Diane Arbus/Estate of Diane Arbus

Some, such as a photo of two women with Down syndrome delightedly modelling their Easter bonnets, reveal the celebrated humanist; one, a simple portrait of a woman with Down’s resting on a bench on a summer day, gives the subject such dignity and grace that both sitter and viewer should feel grateful. And yet, several scenes of a shambling costume parade descend into a fantastical grotesque that surely should not have been achieved at the expense of the residents, who Arbus said she had come to adore.

Arbus’s work was central to photography’s emergence as high art in the second half of the 20th-century. The notion that it is a medium of presentation and performance as much as of documentation has made possible the work of artists as diverse as Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall. But Arbus’s centrality doesn’t make the work any less unsettling today than it was in the 1960s: As this exhibition walks us gently through a fine collection of 50-year-old images mounted on elegant dove-grey walls, the dark ambiguity of Arbus remains undiminished.

Diane Arbus: Photographs, 1956-1971 continues at the Art Gallery of Ontario to May 18 and opens at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts June 6.

Editor’s note: (Feb. 26, 2020) An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the location of the Diane Arbus Archive in New York. This version has been updated.