An Emergency in Slow Motion
In An Emergency in Slow Motion (Bloomsbury, 2011), William Todd Schultz performs a paradox. He eschews the typical biography and in doing so, illuminates his nebulous subject better than any biographer before him. Schultz, who has a Ph.D. in psychology and teaches at Pacific University in Oregon, approaches photographer Diane Arbus’s psychological life. His goal, as he mentions in his preface, is to get a clearer image of what Arbus was after, of what she was trying to say. In doing so, readers get a clearer image of who she was.
Schultz achieves this by referencing her previous biography—Diane Arbus: A Biography by Patricia Bosworth—and by going beyond the facts Bosworth expounds in her 1984 work, focusing instead on the functions. He makes use of both of Diane’s adolescent autobiographies, written at age 10 and 14, as well as the Arbus estate’s 2003 photograph and journal collection Revelations. But to get beyond these facts and to get inside her mind, he draws from interviews and numerous exchanges with Arbus’s late psychotherapist, Helen Boigon. And fittingly, using the tools of his trade, he applies psychoanalytical concepts like attachment, splitting and projective identification, script theory, and traits (“basic endogenous tendencies” in psych-speak).
But refreshingly, Schultz’s writing is not pedantic. Instead, it is largely speculative and almost wholly interpretative. Chapters are not arranged chronologically, but are rather topical, dealing with the specific themes of Arbus’s life, like family and love. Lucid dreams and indispensable mysteries haunt the text. Even the book’s title was taken from a dream Arbus recorded in 1959 and which was later published in May 1971 for an Artforum spread. As a result, An Emergency in Slow Motion often becomes like a subject itself, a Rorschach test, “a secret about a secret”—a phrase Arbus often used to describe her photographs—and Schultz allows for a reflexology that is both riveting and, at times, remote.
He connects the role played by sexual desire in Arbus’s art with the general need for love or love-making in creating art, a theory he confirms by quoting Philip Larkin. He cites work by her favorite authors, like Kafka, and applies each to her life. He devotes four pages to connecting brother Howard Nemerov’s Journal of the Fictive Life—and specifically the few instances Nemerov mentions Arbus—to his sister’s own artistic mantra, as if the two were unconsciously aligned, like the twins Arbus was so fascinated with shooting (Schultz connects this, too). He links her rampant adolescent exhibitionism with counterphobic tendencies and frequently endeavors to show that the photographer made her subjects look how she felt—a term he refers to as “Arbused”—through quotes by former subjects and quotes about these subjects by Arbus herself. With all of this psychoanalysis, in which each piece is connected in some way to the larger puzzle of Diane Arbus—whether they are molded, or whether they fit naturally—the book often reads like a conditional construct. These “if then” statements are often answered with phrases like, “So there was a lot going on inside Arbus that pushed her in the freaks’ direction …,” “So the affinities were intense: immense wealth, trauma, a lonely childhood, secrets…,” and “So the art revised history; it made a world of enforced closeness.”
The most important supposition Schultz proffers is that art is not just expressive, but also defensive—that it is more than what the artist intends it to be, that it means more than what an artist wants it to mean: “She saw what she wanted to see and snapped it; the result was autobiography, not biography.” Whether Arbus realized her Basil Hallward tendencies or not, Schultz explains that she was clearly fascinated with her identity, her sense of self, and helps readers understand why Arbus moved from the mainstream fashion world to a world devoid of masks entirely, a world of freaks, in which, he concludes, she was the biggest one. Schultz helps us through his most important hypothesis with lengthy descriptions of not just the photographs Arbus took, but the identity of the subjects she shot. The analogy of artist as subject is finally consummated: by learning about her subjects, we learn more about the photographer.