Borrowing from its vast and momentous photography collection, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) is currently exploring themes of intimacy, non-traditional relationships, and marginalized people through Real Worlds: Brassaï, Arbus, Goldin. This gripping group exhibition centers around images from Brassaï’s provocative 1976 photobook, The Secret Paris of the 30’s, Arbus’s posthumous treatise, Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph (1972), and Nan Goldin’s famed autobiographical slideshow, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1986). These honest and intimate depictions of young lovers, prostitutes, and gathered friends form a timeless bond between viewer and subject and reveal the perennial desire to be loved and accepted.
The earliest photographs in Real Worlds come to us from Brassaï (a.k.a. Gyula Halász), a Hungarian-born sculptor and photographer who famously documented Paris’s seedy nightclubs, cafés and brothels in the 1930s. With his pseudonym extracted from Brassó, the city of his birth, Brassaï (1899 – 1984) surrounded himself with a community of the city’s finest artists and writers, including Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, and Henry Miller. Setting his camera upon the nocturnal underworld of Montparnasse, he compassionately captured the inner lives of streetwalkers, criminals, and nightclub patrons. Miller even referred to this former journalist as the “eye of Paris.” However, with World War II and the Nazi Invasion of Paris on the horizon, these photographs represent the last gasp of France’s peacetime frivolity, freedom, and progressivism.
This passionate, festive atmosphere hangs in the air like smoke in Brassaï’s works. We can almost smell the cigarettes and coffee seen in Lovers, Place d’Italie (c. 1932). Through this visual communication, the artist instantly transports the viewer to a crowded Parisian café. Tenderly displayed in Real Worlds, this celebratory image focuses on an amorous couple at a corner table as they gaze longingly into each other’s eyes. In this public display of affection, this romantic reverie, the viewer shares in this couple’s freedom and bliss.
Continuing with this feeling of indulgence and openness, Real Worlds also features Brassaï’s At the Cabane Cubaine in Montmartre (c. 1932). Following World War I, Parisians became enamored with all things African and African-American. This trend included a fascination with Josephine Baker, the Charleston, Jazz, and visiting Montparnasse dance halls filled with Sudanese, Guinean, and Senegalese people. This mirthful silver gelatin print showcases several Parisians and Africans laughing, cavorting, embracing, and dancing together in a crowded Pigalle nightclub.
This modern, broad-minded attitude is also particularly strong in another Brassai photograph from 1932 titled Streetwalker near the Place d’Italie. This non-judgemental image presents a full-figured prostitute advertising her physique under the glow of a streetlamp as a cigarette seductively dangles from her lips.
While Brassaï may have viewed his subjects as friends and acquaintances, Diane Arbus (1923-1971), the second photographer featured in this exhibition, was a touch more removed in her work. Hailing from an affluent background, her penetrating and profound black and white portraits of nudists, transgender people, and the mentally ill question ideas of normality and delve into issues of identity, race, disability, and gender theory.
Known for wandering the New York City streets with just a small camera in tow, Arbus photographed an interracial couple in A young man and his pregnant wife in Washington Square Park, N.Y.C. 1965. While similar to Brassaï’s Cabane Cubaine in subject matter and social message, this featured image is far more serious in tone. There is no giggling, dancing or swirling, soirée atmosphere to see here, just a direct and straightforward depiction of an African-American man with his arm around his white wife.
While those featured in Brassaï’s candid snapshot do not seem to notice the artist capturing the photo, both parties in Arbus’s non-traditional family portrait are looking directly at the camera. Their gazes reveal vulnerability and strength in equal measure. Considering the heightened racial tension of the 1960s and the passage of the Civil Rights Act only one year before Arbus took this photograph, the couple’s tenuous sense of security is palpable here. Also, the artist’s caption reveals that this couple is about to welcome a child in this nascent period justice and progress, adding to this sense of elation and apprehension
Emboldened by Brassaï and Arbus in their honest and poignant portrayals of outsider communities, American counterculture photographer Nan Goldin, the third and final artist recognized in Real Worlds, is renowned for her diary-esque documentation of friends, lovers, LGBT people, drug use and domestic abuse. Making a name for herself in Boston, New York, and Berlin in the 1970s and 80s with her unyielding and visceral snapshots, Goldin, like Brassaï, was wholly intertwined with her subjects. They were her equals. Whether capturing dizzying nightclub scenes or commonplace, everyday moments, Goldin’s work in this period relentlessly showcased the ecstatic highs and brutal lows of youth culture.
Like Arbus, Goldin also grew up in a respectable family. Desperately craving escape from this traditional upbringing, she ran away from home as a teenager. Through her tight-knit group of friends, including prostitutes and drug addicts, Goldin not only found a sense of community but an adoptive family of sorts. In Picnic on the Esplanade, Boston, 1973, one of this exhibition’s centerpieces, we recognize this effortless bond as they grin and giggle in the grass over cake.
In this, another non-traditional family portrait, we feel the overwhelming joy and liberation of simply being oneself. We also come to understand that one does not need to be related to be family. Here we see the soul select its own society.
Real Worlds: Brassaï, Arbus, Goldin reveals the strength in non-conformity, in being unapologetically frank about self-identity, lifestyle, and relationships. This touching, electrifying exhibition walks the viewer through several of the 20th century’s most raw and candid counterculture photographs and boldly declares that there is no wrong way to make a family.
Emily Nimptsch is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Nimptsch is also a freelance arts and culture writer who has written for Flaunt, ArtSlant, Artillery, ArteFuse, and Time Out Los Angeles.