Diane Arbus by Athur Lubnow
Diane Arbus’s searing portraits of what she called “freaks” – nudists, dwarfs, transvestites – made her “arguably the most influential photographer of her generation”, said Nancy Durrant in The Times. For her, photography was a form of seduction. She would photograph her subjects “for hours until, exhausted, they would drop their guard”; she would ask them “disarmingly personal questions” that would “slip into sexual intimacy”. And Arbus’s sex life, even by the standards of the 1960s, was “eye-popping”. Photographing orgies, she would get “stuck into the action”. She bedded “editors, peers, admiring students and random people she met on the bus”. According to Arthur Lubow, author of this rigorous biography, she even had a sexual relationship with her elder brother, Howard, which lasted right up until her suicide, at the age of 48, in July 1971.
I’d always assumed Arbus came from a poor background, said Lynn Barber in The Sunday Times. In fact, she grew up in a “vast apartment on Park Avenue with three nannies, two maids, a cook and a chauffeur”. But starved of intimacy – neither her father, a department store owner, nor her mother, a “self-absorbed beauty”, were warm or loving – she married her childhood sweetheart, Allan, when she was just 18. They had two daughters, and set up a fashion photography studio together. It was Arbus who came up with most of the ideas, but her role was always “subservient”; increasingly frustrated, she eventually stormed off the set of a Vogue shoot, declaring: “I’m not going to do it any more!” It was the “decisive moment” of her life, said Sean O’Hagan in The Guardian. Soon afterwards, she separated from Allan (though they remained friends) and plunged herself into her own photography. Though Lubow “digs deeper” than previous Arbus biographers – tracking down, for instance, some of her most famous subjects – he never gets fully to grips with the complexity of her art, or the “deep discontentments that fuelled it”.
At times, it’s true, this biography is plodding, said Liz Jobey in the Financial Times. But Lubow does bring his readers to a partial understanding of Arbus’s troubles. A lifelong depressive, she never reconciled her life as an artist with her role as a wife and mother. And while she came to be critically acclaimed, financially she still struggled. Even so, her death remains a “mystery”. When her body was found, her diary was lying open at a page headed “Last Supper”, with the subsequent text “neatly cut out”: the missing pages never surfaced. What was written “is impossible to know”.