It’s a shame that Hollywood made such a hash of their one attempt to render Diane Arbus on screen. Her life begs for a biopic. There is a seemingly endless string of sexual encounters, including multiple affairs, orgies, an incestuous relationship with her brother, the poet Howard Nemerov, while the final love of her life, the art director (and married) Marvin Israel lost interest in Arbus in favor of her teenage daughter; there is the way Arbus lurked throughout the tumult of the ’50s and ’60s, befriending (and in some cases bedding) the likes of Gay Talese, Andy Warhol, Norman Mailer, Richard Avedon, and Ti-Grace Atkinson; and of course, there are the photographs. Even 50 years later, Arbus’s pictures remain otherworldly and seductive, at once a battlefield report from the furthest edges of polite society and an illumination of everyday grotesqueries. (If you missed Fur, a Fifty Shades of Grey meets Frida mashup featuring Nicole Kidman as Arbus and Robert Downey, Jr. resembling, in one critic’s words, an “immaculately groomed Shih Tzu,” count yourself lucky.)
The epic story of Arbus’s life is retold in Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Life, Arthur Lubow’s magisterial new biography of the photographer. There have been other attempts to render Arbus’s story in print, including Patricia Boswell’s 1984 Diane Arbus: A Biography, which has the advantage of interviews with Arbus’s sprawling social circle, and the far less successful “psychobiography” An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus by William Todd Schultz, but Lubow’s 734 page doorstopper is sure to stand as the definitive telling for at least a generation.
Lubow traces Arbus’s story as the privileged daughter of a Jewish clothier, spending her childhood locked in a 14-room velvet vault of a home at the San Remo, overlooking Central Park. Here, she tiptoed out on the ledge to imagine what it would feel like to fall, and would striptease for an admiring older neighbor across the courtyard. She attended Fieldston, the elite of the elite of New York’s private schools, but after graduation and much to her parents abjection, she married Allan Arbus, a college dropout who worked at the family department store.
After the war the two set up a fashion photography business—degrading work complemented by long hours and little pay. Because she partnered with the inept Allan, there were technical aspects to photography that Diane never learned. But she was a natural with composition and setting her subjects at ease. “Fashion photography was treacherous and ultimately futile because it began with a premise of fantasy and sought to infuse its imagined scenes with realistic detail,” Lubow writes. “That was going about things backward. Under the close scrutiny of a photographer, reality might at times appear fantastic, but no amount of doctoring could ever endow the concocted with the clout of the real.”
Insights like these make Lubow a reliable guide through Arbus’s life and work. The cinematic quality of the former is compelling, and there is no shortage of poignant, tragic moments up to the very end. Arbus killed herself by swallowing a handful of barbiturates and slitting her wrists in her bathtub, leaving only an appointment diary with the words “Last Supper” and an open page of the I Ching outside the door. But it is the work that endures. Lubow spends pages detailing her photos and arguing the reasons why they work—or don’t. And to be clear, Arbus shot more than her share of duds, in particular when she was on assignment for a celebrity photoshoot.
Her camera was drawn to harsher realities. Arbus didn’t invent street photography—by the time she left Allan and struck out on her own, “street photographers strode so thickly over New York City’s terrain that by the mid ’50s their preferred hunting grounds were beginning to resemble safari parks,” Lubow writes. He traces Arbus’s lineage through Eugene Atget, Berenice Abbott, and especially August Sander. But Arbus helped her medium vault past the gatekeepers who insisted the camera was merely for documentation, elevating it to the realm of fine art. Arbus’s photos were the first to appear in the pages of Artforum, on the cover, no less.
Arbus’s biggest break came when she was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s “New Documents” exhibition in 1967, alongside Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand. Reviews scarcely mentioned the others. The show helped move photography into the mainstream, or at least away from the treacly sentimentality MoMA had forced on the art form with “Family of Man” a few years prior, the museum equivalent of It’s a Small World that included text by Carl Sandburg. (“There is only one man in the world and his name is All Men.”) After “New Documents,” Arbus’s style, “allusive, funny, moving, intelligent and profound,” became the dominant style in photography, but she still lived a life just slightly above penury. She lacked recognition for her influence, and this bothered her. Despite her hipster-shabby style—she carried a paper bag in lieu of a purse—and nearly pathological shyness, she doggedly pursued the people who could help her career. “She was desperate to be famous,” the photographer Saul Leiter told Lubow. “Her whole life was aspiring to fame.”
Arbus’s fame grew almost immediately after her death. There was a MoMA retrospective the year after her suicide in 1971, featuring lines literally around the block, and half a million sales of her monograph. A 2003 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art retrospective, “Diane Arbus Revelations,” reintroduced the work to a new generation. This year, the Met Breuer is showing “Diane Arbus: In The Beginning,” featuring never-seen early work.
As Lubow explains, part of the appeal of Arbus’s photographs extends from the method of her practice. Arbus’s prime coincided with the rise of New Journalism, and she borrowed from these writers that took an active role in their own stories, and whose work appeared alongside hers in Esquire and New York. Her subjects appear so intimate because Arbus was intimate with them. She hung around until the point of exhaustion, waiting until the right moment to capture them. Photography was an act of seduction, in some cases literally. “There is a palpable connection” in Arbus’s photographs, Lubow writes. “An unexpected closeness, often with a libidinal charge, helps explain why her portraits of both men and women can be so unsettling, and difficult for would-be Arbuses to reproduce.”
That closeness is only part of Arbus’s charm. If she was lousy with the technical aspects of camera work, she made up for it with an eye that seemed to strip reality bare. Several of her subjects recount to Lubow that Arbus captured something they didn’t even know about themselves. In her photographs, people saw not just what they were, but the what they would grow into. Arbus tried her hand at teaching a few times to pay the bills, but she hated it, and couldn’t really do it. What she discovered was beyond words.