Jo Mazelis looks at the new biographer of the iconic photographer Diane Arbus by Arthur Lubow.
There are certain artists whose impact and influence is so enormous, whose work is so different (and often challenging and upsetting) that had they not done the work they did there would, or so it seems, be empty spaces in the firmament. Individuals who are so uniquely themselves that their work changed the art form. Dylan Thomas is one, Bob Dylan another. David Bowie, Sylvia Plath, Frida Kahlo, Nan Goldin and Joni Mitchell too. Without doubt the photographer Diane Arbus is one of these, she is utterly unique.
There have always been negative reactions to the work of Arbus, in particular the idea that she sought out everything that was ugly, or deformed, or peculiar – or conversely, she took the normal, the beautiful, the average and made these awkward, ugly, monstrous. A verb has emerged to describe being photographed by this woman; ‘Arbused’ though I don’t think it has made the dictionary yet. Germaine Greer has written about her encounter with Arbus in the early 1970s and described how she became aware that the camera’s shutter clicked only at those moments when anger or irritation showed on her face.
The viewer of Arbus’s photographs stands between these two poles of opposition; few people would want to be portrayed in the way that Arbus showed them, but many want to see. Some of the arguments against Arbus are based on moral and ethical principles and the implicit control she wielded in taking and editing her photographs. Was her work brave or cruel? Did she hold up a mirror to reality or distort it? Should art always aim for beauty or is truth more important?
Because photography is a mimetic form rather than a constructed one like writing or painting, her work seems to exploit real people, to expose them to a hair’s breadth moment in which their expression, their posture, their grubby or ornate surroundings are fixed for eternity in all their flash-lit awkwardness, pomposity or ugliness.
How she created her work has been reported and speculated upon in multiple ways, but why she took the sort of photos she did is increasingly an unanswerable question. In a very similar way to the writer Sylvia Plath, there is the idea that Arbus took an unswerving path towards the dark and the demonic until she had gone so far into its perilous, but magnetic darkness there was no way back and suicide was the only escape. Emphasising this fact may actually distort how her work is viewed and is possibly a dangerous conclusion to come to in terms of how the woman and her work are viewed.
The new biography Diane Arbus; Portrait of a Photographer by Arthur Lubow follows Patricia Bosworth’s 1984 book which was the first to give her life story. William Todd Schultz’ An Emergency in Slow Motion; the inner life of Diane Arbus (2011) is a psychobiography and deals with Arbus less as an artist and more as a dysfunctional patient whose work represents the voice and symptoms of a troubled woman. The first book to deal with Arbus the photographer was the Aperture monograph of 1972 and this was the book that defined and enlarged her status for over a decade. In 1984 Magazine Work appeared and this put her oeuvre in a more rational and conventional light because here were photographs she had taken as editorial assignments rather than as private pursuits, obsessions or worse perversions. The Arbus estate have repeatedly refused permission to reproduce Arbus’s work in many publications including this one, so Lubow’s book contains no images taken by Arbus but it does have quite a few pictures of her. However with so much of her work available online this doesn’t seem so much of an issue.
Lubow’s first chapter, aptly called ‘The Decisive Moment’ after French photographer Cartier Bresson’s much quoted phrase, paints a vivid picture of Diane Arbus’s frustration with fashion photography. Her role in the husband and wife partnership was ‘subservient’ she came up with themes for shoots and attended to small details while Allan Arbus took the pictures. She later said ‘I hate fashion photography because the clothes don’t belong to the people who are wearing them’ and they don’t ‘take on a person’s flaws and characteristics’ – so she quit. Susan Sontag in her seminal book, ‘On Photography’ claimed that Arbus’s work was ‘her way of saying fuck Vogue, fuck fashion, fuck what’s pretty’ but this claim seems too simplistic; the view now is that there is something oppressive about images of female perfection, something unattainable and discomforting for most ordinary people.
Lubow is an astute and often beautiful writer, who does not resist the novelist or poet’s use of metaphor; in referring to the privileged family Arbus grew up in, he says, ‘Theirs was a cushioned life that rested on a pile of furs.’ The furs evoked were the source of the family’s wealth as they had a large fur shop which later became a department store specialising in women’s fashion.
In some ways Lubow’s romantic and literary style imbues this vision of Arbus with poetic and sympathetic touches. Indeed the easiest way to describe his writing is to quote him as he describes the New Journalism that emerged in the late 1950s; ‘long ribbons of dialogue, layers of fine-textured detail, and a narrative propelled (in part) by scenes.’ Lubow’s detailed description of the husband and wife partnership in fashion photography also accounts for an apprenticeship that was formally either skimmed over, unknown or dismissed. He notes that while the fashion photographs of their colleague, Richard Avedon appear relaxed and natural, the Arbus models look stiff and posed despite all attempts at a naturalistic effect.
Awkwardness or self-consciousness in a subject is one of the key traits that seems to separate Arbus’s later street photography from the humanity and naturalness seen in the sort of images in the famous Family of Man exhibition of 1955. Awkwardness in posing is arguably one of Arbus’s significant legacies, evident in the work of Rineke Djikestra and Katy Grannan. Arbus’s subject always seem aware that they are being photographed; for the viewer of the pictures this sets off a variety of small responses like firecrackers which are contradictory and shaming; fascinating, repulsive and irresistible. Firstly the viewer seems to ask, Do they know what they look like? How did the photographer do that? How did she dare? The next question is about the choice of angle, the lens, the in-your-face closeness of some of the pictures. Could the photographer have made a more sympathetic image of that old woman, that teenage couple, that spotty boy? But if she had, would the viewer quickly turn the page, immediately dismissive of such a banal, non-picture?
Lubow describes Arbus’s early sense of missing the emotions others felt, feeling ‘unreal’ and hints that this leads to her later work because it ‘recorded the intensity of that reciprocal locked-eye vision: Arbus scrutinizing her subjects, and those subjects illuminating her with their gaze.’ On a trip to Europe with Allan in the early 1950s Lubow makes clear that Diane, despite carrying her Nikon everywhere, took very few pictures, but seemingly Arbus was not then quite Arbus or not as we think of her anyway. The travelled to Italy where things improved; there Diane photographed ‘moody landscapes’ and ‘children standing still’ becoming a ‘street photographer’.
Back in New York Lubow outlines the Arbus’s return to fashion photography and his analysis of the single Arbus image included in The Family of Man exhibition is key to the idea of the real and the fake. The image of a boy and his father reading sections of the newspaper was taken from a set of images shot for Vogue which purport to be documentary photographs (showing real people going about their real lives) but were actually staged. There is a fine distinction here between truth and fiction; the family were real, not models, they did all the things they are portrayed as doing, going to church, eating a meal together, but these events were reconstructed for the camera. Pictures of this sort Lubow says were ‘societal, not psychological’ in other words such images held society together by projecting perfect happiness, peace and good behaviour; anything unpleasant is hidden away.
Lubow’s illumination of her development as a photographer is an important factor that was perhaps less in evidence in other accounts. Of course, for years all the public knew of her work were the pictures in the 1972 monograph. What was astonishing about those photographs was the relentless detail of many of them, the shabbiness, the flaws, the sweat and sleaziness, the bad make-up, tawdry clothes or furnishings. It seemed as if nothing had been portrayed that way before. The impression was that Arbus had always and only taken photographs like this; that she was almost sociopathically unable to make images that were gentle or kind or responded to beauty. It seemed as if she had broken rules that even the sensationalist news photographer Weegee had not broken, and this in turn suggested she was a cruel person, deliberately using her camera like the magic mirror in The Snow Queen to show everything beautiful or good as ugly or bad. Not truth then, but a distortion.
In a world where human perfection; dazzling white teeth, flawless skin, surgically enhanced bodies, implanted breasts and chins and cheekbones, lifted knees and faces, photoshopped celebrities and attenuated models give rise to a variety of issues stemming from self-hatred, anorexia and alienation, why are images like Arbus’s thought of as somehow more evil?
Lubow pays attention to the various processes that produce the final picture, the cropping, the use of flash, the presence of grain and so on. He is also attentive to the changes taking place in the aesthetics and development of photography, in literature and politics and the media. He details events like the publication of Robert Frank’s The Americans in 1959, the impact of books like sociologist Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life and Stigma, so as an artist Arbus is contextualised by her time, rather than standing – particularly as a woman and eventual suicide – as freakishly outside of it.
Lubow provides a sense of the zeitgeist which fed Arbus’s work, the books she read; John Fowles The Magus, Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, Genet and Pinter, illuminating the intellectual pursuits of the period that brought freedom and gravitas to the 1960s and 70s.
The detail from a photograph of Arbus taken by Tod Papageorge in Central Park in 1967 on the book’s cover seems ‘normal’ for want of a better word. In it Arbus looks questioning and a little weary, made neither less or more attractive or odd as a human being. She carries a lot of photography equipment; a large canvas bag, a flash and a twin lens camera with a narrow leather strap that cuts into her neck. But it is the background more than anything which signals normality; she stands on an avenue of trees, the light is dappled, people sit or stroll, one man appears to be wheeling an ice cream cart and to the left, hovering over a man’s head there is a white balloon. The image suggests that this is what it would be like to be photographed by Diane Arbus – or it would be if the camera wasn’t directed off to one side. Unlike many of Arbus’s subjects taken in the same location, Arbus is not isolated from the flow of life around her; she is a part of it and doesn’t look freakishly alone.
To dismiss Arbus’s work as merely being pictures of ‘freaks’ is to miss the point and this perceived segregating ‘specialisation’ began to affect afflict her when her career was at its height. She often failed to get editorial assignments because of this perception, but at the same time she couldn’t sell prints of her photographs as the market for ‘art photography’ was then practically nonexistent. Money, Lubow makes clear was a real problem, as was sickness and aging. Another problem was her relationship with the art director and artist Marvin Israel. There are revelations in this book: terrible unsettling things, but I think these are evidence of what perhaps deepened and worsened her depression and therefore need to be set apart from her art.
I think Lubow has succeeded in rescuing Diane Arbus from many of the misconceptions about her and reinstated her as an artist whose importance has increased with time. He deals with some difficult aspects of her personal life, but I think more importantly he has brought her into the light and made sense of her art as art.