Arthur Lubow’s compelling new biography about the revolutionary photographer Diane Arbus brilliantly demonstrates how the emotionally fragile state of an artist can be channeled into something wondrous. His depiction shows us why her startlingly original photographs still stand on their own merit while simultaneously mirroring the photographer’s fractured psyche, which ended with her suicide in 1971. Arbus left behind a trail of wounded and broken relationships from all facets of her turbulent life. Lubow does not turn away from the childhood trauma that ignited her work, and he shows an empathic tenderness for her that she was unable to provide for herself.
The image of Arbus that emerges from Lubow’s superbly crafted text, which draws on exclusive interviews with those who knew her intimately, is an extremely disturbing one. Born into a wealthy Jewish family in Manhattan in which both parents ignored her, she found solace early with her older brother — the poet Howard Nemerov — in a relationship that included inappropriate sexual groping that Arbus insisted continued throughout their adulthood. Diane seemed to take peculiar comfort in the discomfort of others. Lubow writes about her tendency to be unusually quiet in group conversations and then laugh erratically at inopportune moments, leaving everyone puzzled by her disconnectedness.
Diane married Allan Arbus while still a young woman, and they began a fashion photography business. She was drawn to her husband immediately and intensely, and Lubow speculates about her attraction to him. Lubow describes Allan as “cerebral, detail-focused, fond of wordplay, pedantic and pessimistic. There was something methodically Talmudic in his parsing of minutiae and worried perfectionism. His mind was tethered.” Their union lasted a decade and produced two daughters.
Diane threw herself wholeheartedly into the family business, but was soon bored and frustrated by the sanitized tidiness of the layouts that she spent hours crafting. Her longings were elsewhere. She wanted to photograph ugliness and mess and explore worlds other photographers shunned. Lubow wonders whether these obsessions were some sort of antidote for the depression that always threatened her, just as it had terrorized her mother. She quit working with her husband and began pursuing her own work. Her photographs were chillingly provocative pictures of cross-dressers, prostitutes and dwarfs who stared blankly into her camera, looking somewhat startled. Lubow seems infatuated with her work, which speaks to him, but many others were put off by a certain coldness they saw in her pictures that seemed to mock humanity rather than embrace it with any sort of empathy or tenderness.
She also took photographs of sad and lonely children who already seemed mortally wounded by the loneliness of childhood. One of her most famous shots, “Child with a Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C.” (1962), shows a prepubescent boy looking glumly into her camera, his face seemingly distorted by aggression and defeatism battling inside of him for dominance. Another iconic Arbus picture, “Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967,” shows sisters whose facial expressions are wildly different; one seems to be embracing life as the other withdraws from it.
Lubow is a talented and sensitive writer, and he doesn’t shy away from confronting the controversies that shadowed Arbus throughout her career. There has always been debate about Arbus’s relationship with the people she photographed. Some believed her to be incredibly sensitive and able to draw something out of her subjects that other photographers couldn’t get near. Others claimed she was aggressive and manipulative and preyed on people for her own gratification. Susan Sontag was a fierce critic who felt that her portraits of eccentrics and oddballs were simply that and nothing more, and any attempt to superimpose some sort of magical poetry upon them was sheer folly.
Lubow himself seems to be trying to like Arbus more than he really does. He presents evidence that shows she was a difficult woman who could be selfish and greedy and impulsive. During her marriage she had countless affairs without remorse. She became uncomfortably close to her eldest daughter’s boyfriends and was overly competitive with her daughter. She was mercilessly self-involved. So when Lubow interrupts his narrative to offer, for instance, some inane generalization about her being a good mother, the reader is taken aback. Lubow clearly illustrates that Arbus could not nourish anyone, not even herself. She was candid about her callousness and wrote that “photography was a license to go wherever I wanted and to do what I wanted to do.” So much for maternal instinct!
Arbus used a 35mm Nikon camera and then began experimenting with the Rollei, which allowed her to maintain eye contact with her subjects. Later in life, she used cameras that let her photograph people who were unaware they were being shot. She also photographed the famous, including Norman Mailer and Germaine Greer. Greer was so upset by her session with Arbus that she confessed she felt the urge to smack her. Arbus had her lie down on a sofa and then straddled her stomach and shoved the camera under her face, which Greer knew would make her look unattractive.
Arbus believed photography was instinctual and could not be taught. She was clumsy with the mechanical aspects of developing prints and had others assist her. Her focus was always on getting the shot. She had mentors who helped her in the beginning but she quickly abandoned most of them because she was wedded to her own vision.
The chilling portrait that emerges of Arbus is ultimately an ugly one. Her internal demons overtook her and caused her to behave horribly with others. She seemed oblivious to the nuances of human interaction, and, oddly, it was this obtuseness that permitted her to create images that force us to glare at them while taunting us to look away. Yet there was something about her work that transcended her illness: a beauty that permeates many of the shots that seem to reveal our own darker impulses. Lubow’s narrative does not attempt to find definitive answers but rather looks inside the crevices of her life for clues to what drove her to produce such a large body of work. We sense he respects her grittiness in trouncing her demons for as long as she possibly could.
Elaine Margolin is a writer and critic in New York.
By Arthur Lubow
Ecco. 734 pp. $35