Book Reviews - Summer 2016

Annals of Human Oddity

Casting an eye on “freaks” with sensitivity and compassion

By Andy Grundberg | June 6, 2016
Arbus in her New York City apartment in 1971. On the wall behind her are photographs of victims of violence and people with physical deformities. (Eva Rubinstein)
Arbus in her New York City apartment in 1971. On the wall behind her are photographs of victims of violence and people with physical deformities. (Eva Rubinstein)


Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer by Arthur Lubow; Ecco, 752 pp., $35

Diane Arbus is one of the 20th century’s most influential photographers, who along with two other greats, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand, first gained fame in the 1967 exhibition New Documents at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. However, unlike Friedlander and Winogrand, whose snapshot-indebted, 35-millimeter images fell into the new category of “street photography,” Arbus was a classic portraitist, positioning her subjects by ones and twos at the center of her camera’s square frame and having them look straight into the lens in a manner reminiscent of German photographer August Sander, whom Arbus credited as her greatest influence.

But what subjects they were! Nudists, dwarfs, sword swallowers, transvestites, autistic adults, and possibly normative children who acted bizarrely under Arbus’s scrutiny—together they constitute a menagerie of human oddity. The shorthand she used for them was “freaks,” but the term does justice neither to their diversity nor to the emotional intensity she brought to the task. In the 45 years since her suicide at age 48, her pictures have retained both their shock value and their gnomic instability, teetering between the poles of documentation and invention, reality and dream.

As with Robert Mapplethorpe, another photographer who knew a thing or two about shock value, the enduring scandal of Arbus’s work has fomented an enduring interest in her life, as if some inscrutable message embedded in the photographs could be decoded by knowing more about the eye behind the camera. (Suffice it to say, if I believed this were true, my long shelf of photographers’ biographies would not be covered with a film of dust.) In Arbus’s case, the raw material a biographer has to work with is at once rich and deep, filled with vignettes of the fashion and magazine industries, the textures of bohemian life in Manhattan in the ’50s and ’60s, sexual and romantic escapades, feminism in the form of women’s liberation, a budding photo art scene, and, of course, suicide.

The manner of Arbus’s death, like that of poet Sylvia Plath and, in a newer generation, photographer Francesca Woodman, has become part of her artistic legacy, as if her untimely end resulted inevitably from her work. Not to mention the male-dominated world in which she lived, which, as some feminists have asserted, helped undercut her sense of self-worth. But there was plenty going on with Arbus psychologically—depression, sexual promiscuity, incest, and a declining ability to form and keep meaningful relationships—that had nothing to do with her art or ambition. She was quite simply a mess of a human being.

Journalist Arthur Lubow attempts to make this mess coherent and compelling in Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer, the second such account we have of her life. He benefits greatly from Patricia Bosworth’s Diane Arbus: A Biography (1984) as well as from Diane Arbus: Revelations, the catalog to a 2003 traveling exhibition organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Bosworth’s book supplies an overall narrative framework for Arbus’s life and career, and Revelations offers up often revealing, sometimes seamy details of what made Arbus tick, many of them contained in letters she wrote, published for the first time with permission from Arbus’s elder daughter and executor, Doon Arbus.

Comparing Lubow’s effort with Bosworth’s is instructive, showing how the passage of time allows new information to inform the story of our lives. Lubow reinterviewed many of Bosworth’s sources (or, if they were deceased, the children of her sources) and extended the net to include anecdotes and remembrances from people outside Arbus’s inner circle.

The result is a longer, more comprehensive account of Arbus’s life and work, but one that is far less enjoyable to read. Although it contains no radically new thesis about how her life may have influenced her work, the book is full of titillating information about Arbus’s sexual escapades. The biggest shocker is the assertion that she had sex with her brother, the esteemed poet Howard Nemerov, sporadically from adolescence until a few weeks before she died. Interestingly, Lubow seems to have come to this revelation by digging into Bosworth’s research—namely, notes of an interview Bosworth had with Arbus’s psychotherapist in 1981. Nemerov was still alive when Bosworth’s biography was published, which may explain why she chose not to mention it.

Lubow supplies pages of description of Arbus’s photographs, both well known and recently unearthed, as well as a list of all the pictures he mentions in his text. But the images themselves are absent, the Arbus estate having refused the necessary permissions. Moreover, like all researchers before him, Lubow was not permitted to access the Arbus archive at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which contains her contact sheets, files, letters, and memorabilia. The museum apparently has yet to catalog all the materials given by the estate in 2007.

Why then did Lubow bother with this decade-long task? Presumably, he had hoped his biography would differentiate itself from prior efforts, either by unearthing new facts or by reimagining the information already at hand. In either case, our reward would have been a brighter illumination of his subject’s importance. But a photographer’s life is a tough nut to crack. Especially Arbus’s.

Arbus famously said, “A photograph is a secret about a secret.” She meant this to apply to all successful photographs, but it seems particularly apt for her own. Yet there is no magic about what she did with the camera, just style—which is a consequence of choices that she made in exposing, developing, and printing her film. What she chose to expose, or more precisely whom, is what gnaws at us and makes us wonder. She worked at a time when photography was still capable of showing us things we had never seen before, the picture of Earth used on Stewart Brand’s first Whole Earth Catalog in 1968 being a great contemporaneous example.

But where seeing our planet from the perspective of space made us feel connected to one another, Arbus’s catalog of “freaks” emphasized the chasms between us. Her secret, if indeed she kept one, might be that we cannot comprehend how different our lives are from everyone else’s, either when those others are limned in exacting detail or when we use our imaginations. And that, unfortunately for biographers, applies to Arbus as much as to her subjects.

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