Masterpieces & Curiosities: Diane Arbus’s Jewish Giant

April 11 - August 3, 2014

In 1959 the photographer Diane Arbus (1923–71) visited Hubert’s Dime Museum and Flea Circus, a Times Square basement phantasmagoria. One of its main attractions was Eddie Carmel, a man who supposedly stood over nine feet tall, billed as “The World’s Tallest Man.” In April 1970, a year before her death, Arbus visited him at the home he shared with his parents, and made this important photograph, A Jewish giant at home with his parents, in the Bronx, N.Y., 1970.

Installation view of Masterpieces & Curiosities: Diane Arbus's Jewish Giant. Photo: David Heald/The Jewish Museum, NY.

Eddie Carmel was the son of immigrants from Tel Aviv. He had lived a normal life in mid-century New York until age fifteen, when he began to suffer from acromegaly, a hormonal condition causing extreme growth. He soon needed custom-made clothing, and was unable to finish college or pursue a typical career because he realized that people could not look beyond his physical appearance. Feeling like a social outcast, he embraced a life in show business, celebrating and even exaggerating the feature that made him unique. This iconic portrait shows an ailing Eddie, age 34, struggling to stand upright just two years before his death.

Arbus’s photographs often explore the tension between normalcy and aberrance. Here, she touches on our obsession with superhuman height—a recurrent theme in folklore and popular culture, from Goliath and the Golem to Andre the Giant and the Incredible Hulk. Her image and its mesmerizing subject may thus be seen in both historical and metaphorical terms.

Artists and audiences have long marveled at any deviation from a supposed standard, but the allure of the extraordinary is deeply intertwined with unease about the human body, its unpredictable abnormalities, and their attendant difficulties. In this way, gigantism and its mythology offer lessons about the infinite range of human experience, poignantly emphasized by Arbus’s photograph.

Masterpieces & Curiosities: Diane Arbus’s Jewish Giant is organized by Daniel S. Palmer, Leon Levy Assistant Curator. The series is organized by Jens Hoffmann, Deputy Director, Exhibitions and Public Programs, and Daniel S. Palmer.

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