Brassaï, Arbus, Goldin at MOCA
Credit: Diane Arbus, A young man and his pregnant wife in Washington Square Park, N.Y.C. 1965, 1965, gelatin silver print, 20 x 16 in. (50.8 x 40.6 cm), courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation Photography Collection
"One day someone will stand where we now live
and wonder who we were." (Macduff Everton)
Words by Ariel Maccarone
August 31, 2018
The aim of many of the first social documentary photographers was to introduce a world often neglected in social commentary. Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis gave a face to the slums of post-industrialized America–an America that was thriving elsewhere. Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange gave life to the dying fields of the Dustbowl by portraying the stories of strangers struggling to survive there. Regardless of its subject matter, we have always understood documentary photography’s core drive to be the illumination of a shared reality.
The photography exhibition Real Worlds: Brassaï, Arbus, Goldin at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in downtown Los Angeles follows suit–at least in title. The signature documentary style of featured photographers Brassaï (Gyula Halász) (b. 1899, Brassó, Hungary (now Romania); d. 1984, Èze, France), Diane Arbus (b.1923, New York; d. 1971, New York) and Nan Goldin (b. 1953, ) causes viewers to re-evaluate the concept of Reality as a whole, not just the accuracy of their own world view. The exhibition’s meticulous curation by Lanka Tattersall and Curatorial Assistant Rebecca Matalon also triggers the long debated question of what exactly qualifies a creation as a work of art.
Real Worlds features three separate rooms–each dedicated to a different photographer, location, and different period in time. As stated in MOCA’s press release for the exhibition, all images are sourced exclusively from three photography books: “Brassaï’s The Secret Paris of the 30’s (1976), the posthumous Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph (1972), and Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1986)” (Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, 2017).
The exhibition begins with a sterile-looking rectangular room that nears fifty square feet. Three out of the four walls are an immaculate white, save the uniform, horizontal string of black and white photographs; Brassaï’s photographs. The place and time of Brassaï’s images is a slowly disappearing 1930’s Paris coping with the cultural changes of an impending World War II. Similar to Riis and Hine, Brassaï tells the story of a specific population rather humanity as a whole; a population that Tattersall calls “the nocturnal denizens of Paris” (Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, 2017).
More than the work of Arbus and Goldin, Brassaï’s photographs construct a language for the city itself. The majority of his photographs typically feature more than one person and dedicate more space in the frame to the surrounding environment. In order to understand the entirety of a single photograph, one must scan the photo from left to right, top to bottom, and do so again and again. Gradually a narrative develops. A string of mundane, but very personal details weave themselves into a cohesive whole.
The photographs of Arbus and Goldin more extensively explore the “singularity of individuals” (Wall Text, Real Worlds: Brassaï, Arbus, Goldin, 2018). The small size of the photographs–ranging from 12" x 32" to 23" x 32”–cause them to be dwarfed and consumed by walls’ surrounding empty space. One must approach the wall–standing at least three feet from it–in order to make out the specific details that add the intimacy these photographs are known for. The coerced approach is a function of the exhibition's thoughtful spacial design. Nearing the wall at such an intimate distance requires a kind of humility from the viewer. One must accommodate the photographed–move further into their world–in order to know them.
Walker Evans once praised the camera as being “[that] great, incredible instrument of symbolic actuality…” (Kronenberg and Lee, 169-210). Evans further contended that photographic art is something which arises from the “unobtrusive technical mastery” of the camera as a tool to document the external with fidelity (Kronenberg and Lee, 169-210). Contrary to Evans, Arbus and Goldin subjugate the camera, molding it into an intimate extension of themselves.
At first glance, Arbus’s room seems to be a reverential testament to the cult of the Other: an army of freaks, the unsavory, the unwanted, all those whose power is not recognized or valued by the mainstream. Upon closer examination, however, one might consider that perhaps Arbus relates to the camera not merely as a vehicle for voices of others, but also as a way to meet the Other within herself. In this way, the camera evolves as would a limb, becoming an intimate extension of its owner. Arbus’s work addresses the “singularity of individuals” (Wall Text, Real Worlds: Brassaï, Arbus, Goldin, 2018), whether that individual be herself or others. This dynamic is achieved by–among other methods–dedicating most of the frame’s space to the individual. The result is an almost mystifying and romanticized outcast archetype.
The exhibition concludes itself in a smaller room dedicated to Goldin's photographs leading to an intimate room secluded by a wine red curtain reminiscent of a vintage movie theater. Occupying the center of exhibition's smallest room are rows of couches for viewers to sit while watching a slide installation by Goldin. The room plays “a digital presentation of Goldin’s original 35mm slide installation The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1983-2008)….[The slide installation allows] viewers to experience the artist’s photographs as both static and moving images” (Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2017). The couches, too, align with the exhibition theme. They serve as subtle invitations for viewers to–figuratively and literally–share space with strangers. Seating is not compulsive. Viewers can opt to stand against the walls and experience the instillation more privately, or even indulge as would a voyeur and witness the reactions of surrounding viewers in the darkened room.
“I feel very strongly that every artist has one central story to tell. The struggle is to tell and retell that story over and over again, in visual form, and try to challenge that story. But at the core that story remains the same. It's like the defining story of who you are” (Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters, 2012). Real Worlds: Brassaï, Arbus, Goldin gives voice to the dichotomous nature of truth, reality, and identity, and does so during a time in global history when we may have taken those very things for granted.
General Admission (valid all day at both DTLA locations): $15
Students with I.D.: $8
Seniors (65+): $10
Children under 12: Free
Jurors with I.D.: Free
Thurs 11am-8pm (Free admission 5-8pm every Thurs)
Ariel Maccarone is a Los Angeles-based author, musician ("Black Mouth"), and artist. Her writing has been featured in Boston Poetry Magazine, Argentina-based art magazine Apapacho Gallery, Yay! L.A. Arts & Culture Magazine, FOTO MOFO Photography Magazine, and elsewhere. At Yay! L.A. and FOTO MOFO, Ariel also served as Assistant Editor. She has worked as a freelance social media consultant for clients such as Red Bull and PEN Center sponsored publishing house Unnamed Press as well.
When not writing, she can be found wandering the Santa Monica mountains with a Jack Russell Terrier that hasn't learned to "sit", "stay", or "come."
1. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA). The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) Presents Real Worlds: Brassaï, Arbus, Goldin. Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, 19 Dec. 2017. Web.