In May 1971, Artforum, bastion of late modernism, featured the work of a photographer for the very first time. On its cover and in a six-page spread, it published selections from Diane Arbus's portfolio, A box of ten photographs. In the words of the magazine’s editor and photography skeptic, Philip Leider, “The portfolio changed everything . . . one could no longer deny [photography’s] status as art.” At the time of Arbus’s death, two months later, only four of the intended edition of fifty had been sold. Two had been purchased from Arbus by Richard Avedon (the first for himself, the second as a gift for his friend Mike Nichols); another was purchased by Jasper Johns; and a fourth by Bea Feitler, art director at Harper’s Bazaar. Arbus signed the prints in all four sets; each print was accompanied by an interleaving vellum slip-sheet inscribed with an extended caption. For Feitler, Arbus added an eleventh photograph, A woman with her baby monkey, N.J., 1971.
Acquired by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., in 1986—and the only one of the four completed and sold by Arbus that is publicly held—that portfolio is the subject of an exhibition on view at the museum from April through September 2018. This exceptional book replicates the nature of Diane Arbus’s original and now legendary object. Smithsonian curator John P. Jacob, who has unearthed a trove of new information in preparing the book and exhibition, weaves a fascinating tale of the creation, production, and continuing repercussions of this seminal work.
Diane Arbus (born and died in New York, 1923–1971) is one of the towering figures of twentieth-century art. In the forty-five years since her death, her singular achievements have been celebrated by a host of major museum retrospectives throughout the world and by six posthumous publications, all of which have remained continuously in print since their publication, including Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph (1972), and Diane Arbus: Revelations (Random House, 2003).
John P. Jacob is the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s McEvoy Family Curator for Photography. Previously, Jacob was vice president and director of the Inge Morath Foundation. Recent publications include Harlem Heroes: Photographs by Carl Van Vechten (2016), among others. Jacob’s research on spirit photography and the tintype, for which he received the 2012 Shpilman Award for Excellence in Photography from the Israel Museum, will be published by the museum as Ghost Stories: Found Photography and the Certification of Presence.