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'Diane Arbus' examines a photographer who specialized in human mystery

Lubow spends most of the book trying to convince us that Arbus was neither as perverse nor as tragic as she sometimes seemed.

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    Diane Arbus:
    Portrait of a Photographer
    By Arthur Lubow
    HarperCollins
    752 pp.
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Indelibility is a property that only attaches to the dead, so it took a suicide to make Diane Arbus a household name. She spent her career struggling, earning as little as $150 a page for her work. Though she was fast becoming a kind of photographer’s photographer, it didn’t raise her rates. The esteem of her peers did not count for much. Photography was still only just becoming a recognized art form, as Arthur Lubow repeatedly reminds us in his new, deeply researched biography, Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer. “The irony is that when I’m dead, my work will skyrocket in value,” Lubow records Arbus saying to one of her subjects, the feminist Ti-Grace Atkinson.

It took very little time for America to prove Arbus right. Arbus died in July 1971, at the age of 45. By November 1972, there was a Diane Arbus show on at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Over a hundred of Arbus’s photographs were on display. Among them was the famous portrait of the Wade twins, one composed and smiling, the other with hair askew and troubled eyes. It also displayed the photograph of the giant Eddie Carmel, back arched against the low ceiling of his parents’ Bronx apartment. A monograph, edited by Marvin Israel and Doon Arbus, Diane’s daughter, appeared on the heels of the show. It sold, as they say, like hotcakes, though whether it was the technical mastery or the plain circus attraction that drew them in is hard to say.

Arbus’s pictures of outcasts and freaks became seminal images in the history of American photography. An Arbus “style” emerged, elements of which you can find in the photography that came after her, including in the work of Mary Ellen Mark and Sally Mann. Many of her subjects are looking at the camera straight on, which unnerves the viewer to begin with. The photographs are intimate yet distant, self-assured yet somehow tragic. The effect of the photo relies almost totally on those ambiguities, their inability to resolve into a clear verdict on their subjects. Are they simply self-possessed? Or are they fooling themselves? Or was it all a ruse?

“Arbuses often amount to staged collaborations with their subjects,” Peter Schjeldahl once wrote, “this is a matter not of falseness — she never said she was a documentarian — but of art.”In any event, not everyone was impressed. A youngish Susan Sontag went to see the MoMA show and then went to lunch with one of her editors at the New York Review of Books. The editor suggested she write about it. Sontag’s appraisal of Arbus’s work was not approving. Sontag found Arbus’s subjects “ugly”; she thought they wore “grotesque or unflattering clothes.” It especially bothered her that the subjects of Arbus’s photographs seemed, at the moment the shutter clicked, to be unaware of their freakishness. For Sontag, this smacked of cynicism, and she said so. “In so far as looking at most of these photographs is, undeniably, an ordeal, Arbus’s work is typical of the kind of art popular among sophisticated urban people right now,” Sontag wrote, “art that is a self-willed test of hardness.”

Lubow does not think much of Sontag’s points. In his view, Sontag misunderstands Arbus’s process and the time Arbus took with her subjects, which provides evidence of deep engagement. She knew Eddie Carmel for ten years before she was able to get that one perfect picture of him. Yet even that doesn’t mean she was infatuated with her subjects. She was neither friend nor foe, Lubow writes:

The mistake is to imagine that she entirely empathized with her subjects or despised them, that she regarded these people either as soul mates or as repugnant. Like a photograph, life isn’t just black and white.

Indeed it isn’t, but this sounds more like a biographer’s creed than an intellectual reply to the ideas Sontag was playing with. Lubow is not an abstract thinker; instead, he spends most of the book trying to convince us that Arbus was neither as perverse nor as tragic as she sometimes seemed. He grounds her career specifically in the financial facts of her life: though she is often spoken about as a daughter of privilege because her father owned a department store, Arbus and her two siblings inherited little (the family had lost much of its fortune in the Depression). Divorced early from the fellow photographer and later actor whose last name she adopted, Arbus rarely if ever earned enough to support herself. And it was really economic insecurity that made her, Lubow makes clear, a chaser of fortune, obsessed with the paucity of the money she was making.

Lubow is at his best, however, when his focus includes not just the photographer but her camera. He surveys the history of photography in America as he glides from each of Arbus’s images to the next. The book canvasses the careers of Robert Frank and Richard Avedon alongside Arbus. The latter, in particular, was both friend and rival to Arbus, and his presence in the text makes her struggle to become recognized all the more poignant; Avedon’s celebrity obsession is much more aligned with the priorities of magazine editors than her freaks.

Still, Lubow is somewhat hampered as he tracks Arbus’s life, as opposed to her work. He reveals, early in the book, that he was not granted access to the Diane Arbus archive held by the Museum of Modern Art. The archive contains a large trove of correspondence and other writings, as well as a great many negatives and photographs that have never been exhibited. It is controlled by Arbus’s two daughters, Doon and Amy. With an apparent desire to safeguard their mother’s privacy, they haven’t allowed any independent researchers to look at their mother’s writings. More challenges for both writer and reader are created by the fact that they rarely permit reproductions of Arbus’s photographs to appear in books on her work, so Lubow, like everyone else, has to make do with his descriptions and a list of works considered.

Lubow worked on this book for something like thirteen years. He had access to many of Arbus’s friends for his purposes, and certainly gathered enough to construct a coherent trajectory of her life. Still, biographers are completists by nature. Lubow glides over any frustration he might have felt without any bitter remarks – the only hints of it come when he is forced to speculate about photographs he hasn’t seen, or when he has to treat Doon Arbus in particular. Lubow reports, for example, that many of Diane’s friends believed that Doon had an affair with Marvin Israel, and that this affair was the occasion, if not altogether the cause, of Diane’s suicide.

Lubow himself offers no direct view on whether or not these speculations are true. That Israel had affairs, and that Arbus was frustrated both artistically and sexually seem to be beyond question. But without the critical missing link of the family correspondence, you are left thinking that there is more to this story. That feeling, as it happens, is not unlike the response Arbus’s own photographs often elicit. The moments she composes offer a tantalizing hint of an encounter, a glimpse of a human drama etched into the frame. But the truth of the person remains elusive: that’s what keeps us looking. Photographer and subject prove, in Arbus’s case, closer than we knew.

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