LOS ANGELES — The setting is dark, the night accentuated by the rich palette of shadowy black and white. A couple lurks in the penumbra, turned away from the viewer. One wears only a suit jacket, the other only pants as they wrap their arms around one another in camaraderie. It’s the 1930s in Paris, captured by Brass in his photograph “Young couple wearing a two-in-one suit at the Bal de La Montagne Sainte-Genevieve” (c. 1931). World War II is imminent.
Another image, “Streetwalker near the Place d’Italie” (1932): an empty Parisian street in the middle of the night, the passing wind brushing against the trees. A woman is illuminated by a lone streetlight, infinitely waiting. Every detail of the photograph is a pure, frozen moment of daily life. Brassaï’s photographs inspire nostalgia for a bygone era; they elicit wonder at who walks these deserted streets and documents them, and profound feelings of generational displacement and a longing for a world that was on the edge of collapse.
In 2018, the documenting of our lives and surroundings feels like a matter of course; often, we take pictures without second thought. Not long ago, however, photography demanded intention, while documentation retained a trace of novelty. Real Worlds: Brassaï, Arbus, Goldin, an exhibition of 100 works by Brassaï, Diane Arbus, and Nan Goldin at the Museum of Contemporary Art, invites viewers to consider photography not just as documentation of myriad moments but as a means to more deeply understand lives and interpersonal relationships in Western cities.
Brassaï is the quintessential photographer-archivist, having documented nocturnal — always nocturnal — Paris. He wandered like a flâneur, from nightclubs to brothels to empty streets, skirting the edges of the spaces he entered. But he was never incognito. Using a Voigtländer Bergheil, a large fixed lens camera that he would mount on a heavy wooden tripod, each photograph involved a physical investment. As a result, he rarely took two photos of the same thing, instead producing unique and singular fragments of life, like in At the Cabane Cubaine in Montmartre (1932), where the photograph asks us to examine the singular expressions painted on each subject’s face.
Real Worlds places Brassaï in conversation with two of the most significant female photographers working with the city as a subject and people as vectors of lived experience and fascination. While Brassaï happened upon his subjects during his outings, Diane Arbus sought them out. Growing up with privilege, Arbus sought out subjects who belonged to marginalized communities or endured hardships. Her subjects included circus freaks, giants, ordinary people made strange by their expressions or positioning, mixed-race couples, and transgender people. Many of her subjects risked constant and violent discrimination for their life choices. Her photographs seek out the brazenly explicit, forcing viewers to make a visceral value judgment. In “A Naked Man Being a Woman” (1968), Arbus produces a sensitive portrait of a man in makeup (presumably undergoing gender reassignment surgery) hiding his genitals between his legs. At the time, the title alone would have been polemical and the image remains provocative. In 2018 her snapshots of time past challenge audiences to consider how far we have (or have not) ventured into tolerance and inclusivity.
Brassaï and Arbus belonged to different generations. They worked in different cities and with different equipment. Yet both wanted to capture the dissonance between who people are and who they think they are. Arbus believed that personal identity was a social construct while Brassaï considered physical identity as a social moment. Nan Goldin, a photographer who has defined New York sexuality since the 1980s, merges these two perspectives. Photographing her friends, lovers, and herself, Goldin’s work captures the very essence of her subjects. After running away from home in her late teens following the traumatic suicide of her older sister Barbara, she began documenting the people closest to her. Goldin’s intimate portraits overlapped with the AIDS crisis as it hit New York in the 1980s, along with the city’s club and drag cultures and the effects of alcohol and drug abuse at close, personal range. This photographic practice culminated in The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1983-2008), a 35mm slide installation overlaid with music and portraying moments in relationships that can be almost painfully intimate, including a bruised Goldin and her abusive ex-lover.
The exhibition separates each photographer and allots each one with his or her own room. The only time the three artists are placed in conversation with each other is on the wall that separates Brassaï from Arbus. On this wall are three photographs of couples sitting on benches. Here, curator Lanka Tattersall and curatorial assistant Rebecca Matalon give viewers the chance to truly understand the works as a unified body of work. Though they’ve included music from the decades in which each artist worked in Goldin’s slideshow, there aren’t many other visual opportunities for viewers to connect the dots. By otherwise separating the artists, the curators, who have created a powerful and impressive exhibition, miss an opportunity. What could be gleaned about humans in society by placing Arbus’ “A young man and his pregnant wife in Washington Square Park, N.Y.C. 1965” (1965) in conversation with Brassaï cheeky “Young couple wearing a two-in-one suit at the Bal de la Montagne Sainte-Genevieve”? Brassaï’s Parisian beauties with Arbus’ coiffed 1960s bombshells and Goldin’s stunning drag queens? Or the uncanny Parisian streets as seen in Brassaï’s “Streetwalker near the Place d’Italie” (1932) next to Goldin’s all-too-real New York? Still, the pleasure of seeing these three masterful artists together helps us consider how we too can meaningfully document our surrounding worlds.
Real Worlds: Brassaï, Arbus, Goldin continues at MOCA (250 South Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, California) through September 3.