Diane Arbus photos revel in solitude 

click to enlarge Diane Arbus’ “Elderly couple on a park bench, N.Y.C.”
  • Diane Arbus’ “Elderly couple on a park bench, N.Y.C.”
Diane Arbus’ influence on modern and contemporary photography is unparalleled. Known largely for her images of freaks and geeks, a current exhibit at Fraenkel Gallery shows Arbus at her best, and her most varied.

Divided into five sections, “Diane Arbus 1971-1956” presents some 50 photographs in reverse chronological order. Each section moves year by year from late to early Arbus, showing not only her dramatic developments as an artist, but the consistency of her eye.

No matter what she put her camera to, for the brief time she photographed before her suicide in 1971, Arbus was always spot-on.

“Dominatrix embracing her client, N.Y.C.” from 1970 is classic Arbus with a twist.

An old man, nude except for his black socks, hugs a woman. She is tall with long black hair, fishnets and a nipple popping out of her corset. The wrinkled, bespectacled man purses his lips to her neck while she grips his shoulder. The hug is fleshy and awkward: trademark Arbus.

But unlike Arbus’ front-facing subjects, the profile shot walks a fine line between the candid and the posed. Whether staged or not, the image exudes a voyeurism that is at the heart of photography itself, a trait that colors Arbus across her career.

“Couple in bed under a paper lantern, N.Y.C.” from 1966 is a peeping Tom picture. Taken from the far side of the room, a nude couple — their faces buried in each other — entwine on a messy bed. The fly-on-the-wall composition captures the intense solitude that is part and parcel of real intimacy.

Another stolen moment is “Couple arguing, Coney Island, N.Y.” from 1960. The grainy photo shows a trim woman shouting at a man with ferocity, while his face remains disinterested and beyond apathy.

Taken almost 10 years later, “Elderly couple on a park bench, N.Y.C.” is hilarious. A man looks up and out with a vague optimism. The woman next to him, swaddled in Persian lamb, looks down with troubled brows. “Couple eating, N.Y.C.” from 1956 shows a couple huddled over a cafe table, each absorbed in the banal ritual at hand.

Arbus’ couples often invoke the poet Rilke’s famous statement: “I hold this to be the highest task between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other.”

In addition to typical Arbus portraits of drag queens, transvestites, circus freaks, nudists and deglamorized beauty queens, the show includes some unexpected and off-the-cuff shots.

“Boy stepping off the curb, N.Y.C.” — a breezy snap of a young boy looking openly at the photographer — could be by Cartier-Bresson.

The show is a rich, penetrating meditation on one of America’s great photography masters.

IF YOU GO

Diane Arbus

1971-1956

Where: Fraenkel Gallery, 49 Geary St., Suite 450, S.F.

When: 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, except closed Thanksgiving, 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays; closes Dec. 28

Admission: Free

Contact: (415) 981-2661, www.fraenkelgallery.com

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Lauren Gallagher

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