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The biography Diane Arbus always deserved


Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer

By Arthur Lubow


732 pages with a 16-page black-and-white insert, $35

By Anthony Bannon

Diane Arbus knew that the business of photography is to stop time and expose what otherwise would have been lost in the passage of moments. She hated setups, superimpositions, photo trickery of any sort. She tried fashion photography and couldn’t wait to get out of it. She was an original. She spent a life looking for the real thing.

Her’s is a venerable position in photography. For almost 200 years, one form or another of this medium has set out to seize the light reflected off a face, or a place, and make it still – captured, quieted and pinned down for examination.

Even in that predawn before digital, the image made through photography has depended upon a dark, secret place, in camera, where the enchantment occurs; a transformation uncomfortably like death. This is all a part of the mystique of the young woman now gone for 45 years, fascinated by death all her life. She still commands such attention: major exhibitions this summer across the country, for instance, and this book.

Arbus may have died too soon, and from her own hand, but when she lived at her best, it was from within that fraction of a second when the iris is opened and secrets are freed to emerge – scenes previously not known, the daemon unleashed. She fed her passions on secrets, and photography was one of them. Carefully, she built up to that empowered moment: Click.

A photograph is a secret about a secret

The more it tells you the less you know.

These were her words. While the process is of the moment, these words imply passage of time. They are the words which begin “Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer.” Her pictures push humanity toward its extremes. Yes, dwarfs and giants, the right and the left, rich and poor. But more than that – always, always the unexpected view. Her work is called by others “confrontational … voyeuristic … unblinking … pushing the boundaries of what was permissible.” But most importantly, her work may be characterized by the artful way she drew out her subjects, preparing them to discover with her something new and interesting. In a kernel, that focus is Lubow’s gift to understanding Arbus and her work.

Arbus was larger than life, but she wouldn’t admit it; she played small; she listened until it was time for the seduction. Only then did she make her move, and she was polymorphous promiscuous at that. Many men, some women, still more before her lens. Lubow makes this clear in his masterwork of a biography, a chunky, overstuffed brick of a book with 100 pages of acknowledgements, references and stylish footnotes – the new kind without numbers.

Lubow is a journeyman writer who has worked on many fancy magazines, but beginning in 1975 after Harvard and Cambridge as a reporter for the New Times, a biweekly culture newspaper syndicated but personalized with a local touch for cities such as Buffalo.

So Lubow made his way through the ranks, and he tells a good story. Given his subsequent fermentation in such places as the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine and Vanity Fair, he has seasoned well in culture and the arts and doesn’t shy from making choice critical observations.

He has feathered his nest with information – details such as some of the books Arbus valued, and how she cataloged her negatives, and what cameras she used when and for what purpose. He put words in no one’s mouth, he promises, and he connected with hundreds.

The field for a book on Arbus is remarkably open right now. A cautious, polite biography by Patricia Bosworth in 1984 is the sole reference, other than poetics by Howard Nemerov, Arbus’ brother. There exist only four full-scale books on her work.

The late Museum of Modern Art Photography curator John Szarkowski gave Arbus her first significant exhibition, “New Documents,” along with street photographers Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander in 1967. It was just four years before the artist slashed her wrists in a barbiturate-aided suicide in 1971.

Her suicide, even more than a book, or portfolio, or exhibition, would give value to her work, predicted Szarkowski, himself a photographer who early in his career taught in the Albright Art School in Buffalo. And his prediction held sway, with Arbus’ auction values for major works creeping up on $1 million.

While Szarkowski was still in Buffalo, Arbus and her young husband were at a Museum of Modern Art gathering in honor of the remarkable portrayal of the human scene by the Henri Cartier Bresson. It was his notion of photography’s decisive moment that centered a generation’s attention on the possibility of discovering the powerful instant that embodied the insight and delight of art at its best.

Arbus was daughter of privilege, of the family owning Russeks Department Store on Fifth Avenue. Her name is pronounced Dee-ANN, after the heroine in the 1922-24 Broadway hit, “Seventh Heaven.” She was the best and brightest – an original, many agreed. Her brother Howard, the Pulitzer Prize-winning, two-time U.S. Laureate in Poetry, declared Diane “so much more original and striking than I was.” Even her language was “precise, epigrammatic, poetic. You’d recognize it, the way you’d recognize one of her pictures.” But Diane, Lubow notes, preferred to listen.

Married to actor Allan Arbus at 18, she had already packed in recognition for her painterly vision, her fearlessness, and her fascination with the allure of death. She couldn’t have enough sensation, nor need more support. She and her brother and other men significant to her and many other whose names she barely knew provided sensation and support. She married a 19-year-old college dropout who worked in the advertising department of the family store. He was a craftsman with the image; she the visionary. Together they created a successful fashion photography business, with clients the likes of Glamour and Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.

Through 85 snappy chapters organized into seven parts, Lubow lays out a wide field of personal and professional testimony – psychological, aesthetic and cultural – without access to the Arbus Archive, held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art since 2007 and still “undergoing cataloguing and conservation … closed indefinitely to outside researchers.” The Arbus estate did not authorize the use of photographs, so Lubow lists the images he finds pertinent as he builds chapters around a particular image or series, and he suggests where the images might be accessed. In Western New York, the George Eastman Museum has five in its collection.

Lubow’s picture of Arbus is as a gifted artist seared by clinical depression and ever pulled to death. These are the people who struggle, Lubow says; they are “unable to inhabit their lives.” Arbus testified that she was “easily emptied.”

At summer camp, she complained that leeches bit her friends, but none bit her, and she wept. Lubow comments: “She was untouched by the ordinary joys and pains that make people feel alive. This was her prison.”

Lubow does a masterful job locating the train of people who touch Arbus’ life during a hot time in U.S. culture. Before her lens and through her personal life move a casting director’s nightmare of types – Norman Mailer and Bennett Cerf, to suggest extremes, Mike Nichols and Harold Pinter, Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother and Coretta Scott King.

These are overripe characters in a volatile time. Everyone is talented and has a psychiatrist for their secret terrors. Arbus writes Marvin Israel, an editor with whom she worked and sometimes slept: “We are a circus, breathtaking, dazzling and hushed … I am a clown who weeps …”

Lubow does a good job with it.

Anthony Bannon is a former Buffalo News critic. He is director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center.