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Christ in a Lobby, N.Y.C. is a black and white photograph that shows a marble foyer in which is hung a picture of Christ. The iconic religious image has an unlikely presence in the hallway, and the ordinary surroundings seem at odds with the otherworldliness of the sacred picture. Arbus captures the image face-on in direct light. The reflection of Christ’s head in the highly polished marble wall on the left appears uncannily more real than the actual picture presented in the centre of the photograph. This work is fairly unusual in Arbus’s oeuvre in that it features no human sitter. As well as experimenting with compositional devices such as lighting and framing, the photograph acknowledges the history of Christian iconography and questions the values attached to religious imagery in the modern world.
The image of Christ is a reproduction of a fifteenth-century panel painting by the Flemish artist Robert Campin, known as Blessing Christ and Praying Virgin c.1430–5 (Philadelphia Museum of Art). In the reproduction Campin’s original image has been dramatically increased in size, and cropped to exclude the Virgin Mary. The face of Christ transcends the picture plane, while his fingers are rendered as if they physically rest on the wooden support. This illusion is heightened by the placement of the picture within a recess in the marble wall, which contains a selection of books and magazines that Christ, positioned behind, appears to be reading.
In October 1964, the Museum of Modern Art in New York acquired seven Diane Arbus prints, one of which was Christ in a Lobby, N.Y.C. These were the first photographs of hers to be included in a museum collection. Arbus started taking pictures in the early 1940s. In 1956 she began numbering her negatives in sequence and, over the next fifteen years, contacted more than 7,500 rolls of film and made finished prints of more than a thousand different pictures. During her life Arbus published over 250 pictures in more than seventy magazine articles. The bulk of these were commissioned by Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar, but other less frequent publications include the Sunday Times Magazine, Nova, New York, Show, Essence, Harper’s, New York Times, Holiday, Sports Illustrated, and the Saturday Evening Post.
This print is number seven in an edition of seventy-five. It was printed by Neil Selkirk on behalf of the artist’s estate. Another print of this image was exhibited at the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco in an exhibition curated by the artist Robert Gober. (Christ in a lobby or Other Unknown of Almost Known Works by Diane Arbus, 7 January – 6 March 2010)
Susan Sontag, ‘Freak Show’, in The New York Review of Books, 15 November 1973, reprinted as ‘America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly’, in Susan Sontag, On Photography, New York 1977, pp.27–48.
Sarah Parsons, ‘Sontag’s Lament: Emotion, Ethics and Photography’, Photography & Culture, vol.2, no.3, November 2009, pp.289–302.
Elisabeth Sussman and Doon Arbus, Diane Arbus: A Chronology, 1923–1971, New York 2011.