Reviews

Diane Arbus: "Happiness Perplexed Her"

Arthur Lubow is a meticulous researcher whose writing on Diane Arbus never devolves into the prurient or pedantic.


Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer

Publisher: Ecco
Length: 732 pages
Author: Arthur Lubow
Price: $35.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-06
Amazon

Phones in hand, ours is a society continually documenting itself: from the foolish ex-Playmate snapping her fellow gymgoers to teens endlessly snapping selfies, we are privy to an endless flood of images. Whether we wish to see these photographs is another story.

Nevertheless, some 40years after Diane Arbus photographed transvestites and twins, "freaks" and society matrons, her pictures have lost none of their shock value. The twins of Roselle, New Jersey are no less unsettling despite the widespread appropriation of their image (used most famously by Stanley Kubrick in The Shining). The angry boy brandishing his toy hand grenade is no less alarming now that he has reached adulthood. The immaculately groomed socialite pictured in Woman on a Park Bench on a Sunny Day was known for her perpetually happy demeanor. Yet the woman in the photograph gazes into the camera with an expression of ineffable sadness. Shortly after sitting for Arbus, she took her life.

Arthur Lubow's Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer, is a compelling new biography of the woman who made these pictures. Arriving 30 years after Patricia Bosworth's fine Diane Arbus, Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer sheds new light on an artist whose work continues to fascinate the public, offering a compulsively readable yet ultimately sobering look at an artist unable to overcome her demons.

Arbus was born into family that afforded financial comfort without affection. Her family owned Russeks Department Store, famed for elegant clothing and furs. Her mother, Gertrude Nemerov Russek, personified the Russeks customer, rising late to dress beautifully and spend her day shopping or playing cards. Arbus's father, David Nemerov, was an impoverished Jew with a flair for fashion. He found work as a window dresser at Russeks, catching the teenaged Gertrude's eye. The couple married young and had their first child, Howard, only 21 weeks later. Diane arrived in 1923. Renee, born in 1927, never entered into the closeness her elder siblings shared.

That closeness was extreme: Howard and Diane's early childhood closeness crossed the boundary of filial relations into a lifelong sexual relationship. Although Howard told biographer Bosworth, she did not include the disclosure in her 1984 biography of Arbus. Arbus herself told psychiatrist Helen Boigon, reportedly offering the information casually, as if confiding nothing unusual.

Arbus's tremendous artistic talents were evident by adolescence. A gifted illustrator and painter, Arbus was appalled by the accolades she received, distrusting any art that came easily to her. In today's psychological argot, we would say she suffered from "imposter syndrome". Writing in an adolescent autobiography, Arbus said of herself:

"I was always afraid that one day everyone would find out how dumb I was."

Arbus was 13 when she met 18-year-old Allan Arbus, a college dropout who had taken a job at Russeks. Her parents, thinking Allan beneath her, unsuccessfully tried to separate the couple. They married when Diane turned 18.

It was Allan who gave Arbus her first camera, a medium-format Graflex. David Nemerov, impressed with the resulting photographs, hired the couple to shoot fashions for Russeks. Thus began Diane and Allan Arbus, a formidable creative partnership. Diane hired models, scouted the locations, and styled the shoots. Allan did the lighting, shot the photographs and printed them, becoming a master printer in the process. Unfortunately, both hated fashion photography.

Arbus gave birth to daughter Doon in 1945, a seminal experience. While childbirth is always life altering, Arbus placed special emphasis on primordial feeling. The arrival of her menses was always cause for great happiness, while childbearing was a welcome experience of raw emotion. Concomitant with Arbus's lifelong bouts of depression was blunted affect; in her many unpublished orgy photos, Arbus continually searched for "The promise of direct feeling." Second daughter Amy arrived in 1954, an equally joyous occasion.

"Childbirth and menstruation were two of the only experiences that had provided her with the sense of being connected, almost the sole experiences that had bestowed upon her a twinge of joy."

By 1956, with Allan's blessing, Arbus left fashion photography to pursue her own work. She haunted New York City's streets, parks, and circuses. She began frequenting Hubert's Dime Museum and Flea Circus, making the acquaintance of the "freaks" that populate some of her early works. Yet her marriage foundered; by 1959, Allan had moved out.

Allan and Diane eventually divorced, but remained on good terms. Not until Allan shuttered Diane and Allan Arbus for good would he stop printing Arbus's photographs -- or having his assistants do it for her. As for Arbus, her dependence on Allan went beyond marital companionship. Shortly before their marriage ended, he began an affair. Arbus, who had been openly unfaithful, became deeply depressed. She compared her emergence to surviving "a spiritual automobile accident", with "a perfectly decent rudimentary self."

Nevertheless, Arbus had found her subject: the nudists, twins, freaks like the Jewish Giant and the Albino Sword Swallower. Curator John Szarkowski, of New York City's Museum of Modern Art, was impressed enough to offer Arbus exhibition space with photographer Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander. Although the New Documents show was a high point for Arbus. She loved lurking, listening as people remarked on the photographs. Her acquaintances found this unsettling.

Saul Leiter said: "She was desperate to be famous." Photographer Todd Papageorge said, "Diane's whole being was tied up in her work. The value of her work as she saw it was imperceptible from her view of herself." Others noticed Arbus's frail sense of herself. When artist Nancy Grossman met Arbus at Marvin Israel's studio, she was "struck by Arbus's lack of self-definition":

"She came creeping in, like she was sneaking up on us. She was always more absorbing and taking in. It was a way of having herself back from your response. She could only have herself through other people. The more formidable the person, the more validating it was."

Lubow is a meticulous researcher whose writing never devolves into the prurient or pedantic. He's especially discreet when writing of Arbus's sexual proclivities. When Lubow suggests Arbus slept with Lauro Morales, the subject of Mexican Dwarf In His Hotel Room in N.Y.C. 1970, it's not without reason. The barely dressed Morales has a look of "postcoital languor". Lubow goes on to explain there are other photographs from this session of a nude Morales standing beside the bed.

Aside from possibly sleeping with her subjects, Arbus prowled swinger's parties and orgies, seeking both photographic material and sex; she ended up contracting hepatitis. It's possible that she never fully recovered her health.

In 1969, Arbus secured access to Vineland, a New Jersey institution for the developmentally disabled. In what is now a wildly politically incorrect remark, Arbus hoped to capture: "idiots, imbeciles, and morons (morons are the smartest of the three), especially the cheerful ones." Arbus was in search of innocent joy; As Lubow cannily observes, "Happiness perplexed her."

Arbus may have found innocent happiness, but at a cost: her own powerful work failed her. The people she photographed were unable to effect the usual interchange between photographer and photographed. Further, the charm or manipulative tactics Arbus often used with subjects -- conversation, flattery, wearing them down to exhaustion -- didn't work here. "The exchange moved and depressed her. She loved these people, but they could lend her no strength."

Physically worn down from hepatitis, deeply depressed, fearful about money, aging, and lonely, Arbus descended into an ever-deeper depression. On July 27th, her friends and neighbors grew concerned when she did not answer the phone. Marvin Israel, who had a key to her apartment, let himself in. He found Arbus in her bathtub on 28 July 1971. She was 48 years old.

This is hardly the place to discuss Arbus's legacy or the scope of her influence. Nor am I trained to. One observation, however: While reading Lubow's book, I happened to open, of all things, The Cafe Cook Book by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers. This English cookbook of Italian food is interleaved with Jean Pigozzi's black and white photography: a nun leans over a box of produce. A middle-aged cheesemonger tends his wheels of Parmesan. A sandal-wearing child sits on a plastic crate, hunched over so all we see is the top of her head. A restaurant table dressed in white linen is cropped sharply, showing viewers two pairs of expensively booted feet. The debt to Arbus is enormous.

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