Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer
Diane Arbus knew Lauro Morales, a dwarf who performed at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, for fourteen years. She made pictures of him backstage, in the circus ring, and in his hotel room. The most famous of these portraits shows Morales reclined in bed, naked but for a towel and fedora. His diminutive body dominates the picture, and his foot, protruding from the towel, at first resembles another member. He looks pleased with himself.
In Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer, writer Arthur Lubow calls Mexican dwarf in his hotel room, N.Y.C. 1970 (1970) “the apotheosis of [a] body of work, in which the photographer and subject are locked in an erotically powerful communion.” According to Lubow, Arbus’s photos are artifacts of intimacy: they record how her subjects responded to her presence, while raising questions about what transpired before and after the flash. Each image omits as much as it confesses, memorializing an exchange that viewers cannot access. As Arbus wrote for Artforum, “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.”
Lubow seeks to fill in these blanks. Regrettably, he succeeds. At 600-plus pages, Portrait is heavy like a doorstop but made of lighter stuff. Too often, gossipy details about the artist’s personal life eclipse discussion of her art. It is fun (and flattering) to be privy to the “real” Arbus—except that there is no such thing. Biographies are not acts of resurrection, and the subject of Lubow’s biography is Lubow’s creation. Billed as the “definitive” Arbus biography, Portrait at once typifies its genre and misapprehends Arbus’s sensibilities. It exposes—and claims to define—the life of a woman who thrived on mystery.
When Arbus committed suicide in 1971, she was 48 years old and at “the very height of her powers,” as Lubow has stated elsewhere. Her death—like those of Sylvia Plath and Francesca Woodman—motivated several attempts to discover her ultimate secret: why did she end her life? This is the subject of Patricia Bosworth’s 1984 biography, which The London Review of Books described as “strikingly pedestrian” for pathologizing every aspect of Arbus’s history, including her photographs. In 2011, William Todd Schultz published An Emergency in Slow Motion, a so-called “psychobiography” of Arbus, which (at least?) makes no bones about reducing the artist to a “living suicide algorithm.”
Portrait complicates these narratives. Each of the biography’s eighty-five short chapters serves as a standalone anecdote, providing fragments of insight into Arbus’s character. This structure helps keep Arbus’s portrait multivalent. Her death never feels like the most important fact of her life, and Lubow does not presume to know its causes. Instead, he writes elegantly of the ways suicide “burnishes an artist’s reputation” by “stamp[ing] the artistic products with a seal of emotional authenticity.” Rejecting this approach, Lubow avoids using Arbus’s death to understand her work.
But elsewhere Lubow is less discreet. He spends much of the book probing the artist’s sexual history. One chapter reconstructs an erotic exchange between fifteen-year-old Arbus and Alex Eliot, a nineteen-year-old student at Cummington School of the Arts, based on Eliot’s unpublished memoir. “[Arbus’s] small breasts were not as rounded or tanned as her arms and shoulders,” Lubow writes, describing how “a large mosquito landed gingerly” between them. The scene feels voyeuristic: as readers, we access—and even enjoy—Arbus’s secrets without her permission.
Some of Lubow’s intrusiveness is an imperative of his genre. Secrets are the bread and butter of biography, and Portrait was highly anticipated in part because it promised to uncover new ones. Like Patricia Bosworth before him, Lubow uses statements from Dr. Helen Boignon, Arbus’s psychiatrist, to claim that Arbus’s incestuous relationship with her brother, poet laureate Howard Nemerov, “began in adolescence and never ended.” He also explores Arbus’s non-platonic friendship with writer and artist Pati Hill, based on interviews and correspondence, which was “not previously known.” These details, as well as discussion of Arbus’s extramarital affairs, penchant for orgies, and Oedipal fantasies, do little to clarify the photographer’s artistic accomplishment. They do, however, sell books.
Ironically, Portrait portrays Arbus as a private person. “‘I never thought I knew all her secrets,’” her husband, Allan Arbus, told Lubow. In photo shoots, she used her secrets to earn subjects’ trust. She would “‘reveal something about herself and hope […] people would react,’” according to Harper’s Bazaar editor Deborah Turbeville. Her shoots would drag on, getting “‘more and more intimate until she’d slam a home run.’” By all accounts, including Lubow’s, Arbus wanted to control her own confessions. A biography was only possible because she was dead.
Even posthumously, Arbus has been famously difficult to study—and all the more seductive as a result. Her estate, which is run by Doon Arbus, the artist’s eldest daughter, prevented many of her photographs from being shown for decades. Her diaries were kept private; her contact sheets went unstudied. In 2007, the estate donated its archive to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (some of which will be displayed at the Met Breuer’s upcoming show), but it also remains protective: Lubow was denied permission to include Arbus photographs in his text. In this case, the estate’s vigilance backfired. Portrait’s photo section reads like a who’s who of Arbus’s social life, rather than an assemblage of her work.
There is an argument to be made that getting to know Arbus-the-human sheds light on her art. Without a doubt, photos of “female impersonators” are, on some level, about the artist’s gender identity; and maybe her images of older women did, as Lubow suggests, “remind […] her of her grandmother Rose [Russek].” But any picture that depends on outside knowledge of the artist’s biography to reach its viewers is not so much an artwork as an illustration. Arbus’s photos don’t belong in this category: they speak for themselves. This puts biographers like Lubow between a rock and a hard place. New discoveries about Arbus’s personal life are at best unnecessary and, at worst, vulgar and distracting.
The best biographies ground an artist in the cultural moment he or she helped to create. Lubow accomplishes this by relating Arbus’s career to the history of photography as an art form, from her roots in fashion photography to her participation in MoMA’s 1967 photography exhibit “New Documents.” In one particularly interesting chapter, he compares Arbus to her New Journalism contemporaries, including Gay Talese and Norman Mailer, who were interested in revealing characters’ thought processes and owning their own subjectivity. Similarly, Arbus used her camera as an excuse to build relationships. According to Lubow, she “altered a mind-set, steering the course of photography away from street photography and the decisive moment, into a domain of collaboration and staging.” Her work inspired a new generation of photographers, many of them women, to make portraits as records of performance. Cindy Sherman, Rineke Dijkstra, and Catherine Opie are among the heirs to her legacy.
As a result of this artistic contribution, Arbus is not at risk of being forgotten. The question is how—not if—she should be remembered. In this respect, the notion of a “definitive” biography seems outdated. Instead, Lubow’s Portrait is most interesting when, like an Arbus portrait, it allows for multiple readings. Whether she was photographing transvestites or children, minority women or professional “freaks,” Arbus was adept at registering the unknowability of a subject’s inner life. The secret, her photos tell us, is that there is always more.
Gillie Collins lives in New York City and writes about books, movies, and visual art.