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The Metropolitan Museum’s much-hyped survey of Diane Arbus’s early work gets its bang from a fallacy: that her genius revealed itself fully formed. The show brings to light a cache of unknown images by an artist whose reputation rests on a small number of works. It opens in 1956, when she was 33 and, although she had been taking photographs for years, numbered a roll of film #1. In the Beginning ends in 1962, when she discarded the 35mm camera in favour of the square-format Rolleiflex and started making the indelible pictures of nudists, freaks and oddballs that have haunted America’s image of itself ever since. This first chapter of her career has gone unseen until now, and curator Jeff Rosenheim argues that we have missed a period when she was already “in full possession of the many gifts for which she is now recognised the world over”.

The fanfare surrounding this retrospective, the second major production at Met Breuer, has been clanging and insistent. Yet few of the new finds are really finished pictures; most are mementos of the photographer’s daring. In the Beginning crackles with a sense of adventure, a you-are-there immediacy. If, instead of overstuffing the show and overselling it as a revelation, the Met had fashioned a portrait of a young artist teaching herself to be Diane Arbus, the result could have been a quiet triumph. Instead, it’s a loosely organised jumble of out-takes and dry runs.

In the exhibition’s six-year span, Arbus figured out that her passions lay squarely in society’s margins. She gravitated towards the circus and its fairytale natives: giants, dwarfs, sword-swallowers, headless women and fire-eaters. She haunted daytime horror movies, hung out at wax museums and sought out drag queens. In 1959 she compiled a list of topics for further study, including “morgue”, “freak at home”, “weird women”, “meat slaughterhouse”, and “tattoo parlour”. She summed up her interests as “crime; despair; sin; madness; death; fame; wealth; innocence”. With her camera as both shield and weapon, she entered an underworld seldom accessible to women, and returned from her expeditions laden with photographic trophies.

‘Jack Dracula at a bar, New London, Conn’ (1961) © Estate of Diane Arbus

But these early, hastily composed images tell us that she snuck somewhat timidly into tawdry spots before grabbing her souvenir and clearing out. She aims at the contortionist Lydia Suarez from low in the audience, protected by a phalanx of hats and upturned overcoats. (The setting is Hubert’s Dime Museum, haven of human curiosities and home of New York’s last flea circus; “We had our awe and our shame in one gulp,” she wrote.) She shoots a wrestling match from the safety of the rafters, high above the rowdy audience and the sweaty bodies in the glowing square.

She moved quickly and avoided the disruptive flash, savouring the graininess in her night and indoor scenes. A couple arguing along a Coney Island boardwalk emerges from shadowy mists, the man answering the woman’s fury with a look of woe. A “female impersonator” dissolves into the backstage room, her torso liquefied by the beam from her dressing table.

‘Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, LI’ (1959) © Estate of Diane Arbus

Arbus was always a hunter of eccentricity. In the catalogue, Rosenheim cites an essay she wrote for her high-school paper: “Everything that has been on earth has been different from any other thing. That is what I love: the differentness, the uniqueness of all things.” You can feel her groping towards a way to express that fascination. Years later, she set off her subjects’ oddity with a consistent technique, posing them close up and head on, near the centre of a black-bordered frame. She imposes her own personality on all the variety of puckered flesh, shiny foreheads, thick glasses and enigmatic scowls. When you see a mature Arbus from across a room, you know instantly that’s what it is.

But before she learnt to pierce subjects’ armour and forge cruelly intimate masterpieces, she kept her distance, often photographing the unsuspecting, the virtual or the dead. There is, for instance, her voyeur’s view of a woman wearing only a bathing cap and sandals in a Coney Island shower room. She’s all bulge: meaty arms, swinging belly, distended breasts. The picture’s practically a pendant to another image of a pig strung from a hook, its skin luminous and waxen.

‘Kid in a hooded jacket aiming a gun, NYC’ (1957) © Estate of Diane Arbus

Arbus’s obsession with death took subtler form in her later work, but at this point she focused on reminders of mortality that couldn’t stare back: bodies in a morgue, a wax museum, a hospital and a church. She doesn’t blink at “Corpse with receding hairline and a toe tag, NYC” immodestly exposing its viscera. “Wax museum axe murderer, Coney Island” captures an inanimate scene of shuddering violence: a man with a saw filling a box with limbs. Arbus could also be morbidly clever; her picture of a headstone for an interred dog named Killer makes death seem like a quirky joke.

Few of these photos are candidates for immortality. If all we knew of Diane Arbus were the fiercely perceptive but slightly chaotic 35mm pictures, her work would have remained the province of connoisseurs. (And Rosenheim doesn’t help his case by hanging the photos on a forest of columnar walls, without any obvious organising principle.) A few are hauntingly good. A dark-haired Madonna cradles her young son in the middle of Central Park like a 20th-century Pietà. A matron with her eyes closed appears to be conjuring the blurred city in her dreams.

‘Lady on a bus, NYC’ (1957) © Estate of Diane Arbus

Two terrific pictures invoke illusory wonders without including any people at all. One depicts a drive-in theatre at night, darkness violated by an illuminated rectangle of clouds and sun on the giant screen. Revelation comes to New Jersey as the cars’ oblivious occupants make out and munch popcorn. In another frame, a range of Western mountains trundles by on wheels, looking at once hyper-real and puny. We are at Disneyland, of course.

In the Beginning reads like a study for a splendid career. You see her circling around the lurid preoccupations and fondness for the forbidden, her principled rejection of embarrassment. Even more invigorating, you watch Arbus build up stores of relentlessness and ambition, so that when she finally switched formats, triggered the flash and ratcheted up her bravery and patience, she was ready to become one of the 20th century’s unarguable greats.

Until November 27, metmuseum.org

Photographs: The Estate of Diane Arbus, LCC

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