New Yorkers have a rep for being brash, bold, tell-it-like-it-is (aka rude), and give off an air of “don’t mess with me.” I believe we are living off a status that has dwindled considerably.
I came to this conclusion after seeing “Diane Arbus: In the Beginning” at the The Met Brueur. (See more of our coverage of the Arbus show in CityArts.)
Before there was “Humans of New York,” there was Diane Arbus (1923–1971), one of the most influential and provocative artists of the 20th century.
The Met Breuer has a landmark exhibition featuring more than 100 of her – some never seen before – photographs, which focus on the icon’s work in the late 50s/early 60s.
Arbus’s photos of our city’s children and eccentrics, couples and circus performers, female impersonators and Fifth Avenue pedestrians are among the most intimate and surprising images of the era.
As a “walker,” I come face-to-face with Manhattan denizens – particularly on the Upper East Side – on a daily basis, leading me to wonder: Where did the grit go?
New Yorkers are soft – and I include myself – compared to those who came before us. My 93-year-old mother, a member of The Greatest Generation, who is now frail and sedentary, is still tougher than I, as well as most people I know, will ever be.
The images of the New Yorkers showcased in the museum’s retrospective look like they mean business, even when simply riding a bus. And I don’t mean in today’s defensive, mad at the world way because people feel they’re not getting what they’re entitled to, which ranges from a glutton-free cupcake to a private pre-school placement.
The toughness of our predecessors came from the inside; they had an innate awareness that life isn’t easy or fair, didn’t expect it to be, and when faced with hard times, didn’t break down and ask, “Why me?” They accepted it was their turn and handled it. Even the kids Arbus documented seemed as though they could take care of themselves with more resolve then some adults I’ve seen in action.
A photo labeled: Man in hat, trunks, socks and shoes, Coney Island, N.Y. 1960, made me positive that his sartorial choices probably invited a perhaps mocking comment, which today would be considered a microagression. I can only imagine this guy saying with a shrug, “Hey, you don’t like it, don’t look.”
Another marked: Two girls by a brick wall, N.Y.C. 1961 portrays young women who would never use the words “safe space;” in fact, it’s clear that if anyone ever invaded their space unwelcomed, that person is the one who would not have been safe.
For me, the Arbus subject who epitomized the true grit New York once had was the female rider in the photo called: Taxicab driver at the wheel with two passengers, N.Y.C. 1956. She stares straight into the camera, looking us right in eye. And she would keep doing so when she said whatever she had to say; none of this passive/aggression cowardice so prevalent these days.
Maybe the New Yorkers she sought out to catch on film had such tenacity because Arbus had it herself. Born and raised in New York City, the mother of two started her photography career later in life. In 1956, she enrolled in a course at The New School.
At first, she took shots of her muses on the sly, but by 1962 had begun asking permission in order to get up close and personal. And the rest is artistic history.
Not only did she give us great black and white photography, but a reminder of who we used to be. A little smarter, a little steadier, and more direct, acting in public as we do in private, in other words, not phony.
New York will always be a tough place to live. Just as Arbus captured their images, perhaps we can capture the spirit of those whose pictures she took and get the grit back.
Lorraine Duffy Merkl is the author of the novels FAT CHICK and BACK TO WORK SHE GOES.