NEW YORK – As early as 1961, Diane Arbus made notes about a possible project to photograph winners of all sort – "the utmost, the winners, the most, the first, rituals, contests, fame, immortality, Secret Rites" – followed by a listing of events she considered worthy of investigation. In her 1962 notebooks, Arbus jotted further thoughts, and by September of that year, these became the basis of her 1963 Guggenheim project proposal, American Rites, Manners and Customs. She wrote in her official statement:
"I want to photograph the considerable ceremonies of our present because we tend while living here and now to perceive only what is random and barren and formless about it. While we regret that the present is not like the past and despair of its ever becoming the future, its innumerable inscrutable habits lie in wait for their meaning. I want to gather them, like somebody’s grandmother putting up preserves, because they will have been so beautiful"(Revelations, p. 41).
DIANE ARBUS, NATIONAL JUNIOR INTERSTATE DANCE CHAMPIONS OF 1963, YONKERS, N.Y., 1963. ESTIMATE: $250,000–350,000.
Between January and October 1963, Arbus was present at a number of contests, among them Mother of the Year, spaghetti eating, Freckles, and Miss Lo-Cal. The present image was made in February 1963 (ibid., p. 334).
In 1967, Junior Interstate Ballroom Dance Champions, Yonkers, N.Y., was chosen by John Szarkowski for the famous New Documents show at the Museum of Modern Art, the only significant exhibition of Arbus's work during her lifetime. This landmark exhibition showcased the work of three contemporary photographers – Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand – and charted a radical new direction in what had previously been thought of as "documentary photography."