Arthur Lubow, Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2016 by Ecco/Harper Collins (here). Hardcover, 752 pages, with 29 black and white reproductions. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: I expect Arthur Lubow felt contradictory emotions when he learned that the subject of his biography, Diane Arbus (1923-1971), had a long-lasting sexual relationship with her brother, the poet Howard Nemerov (1920-1991).

At first, Lubow must have felt as if a stranger had left him a fortune in his will. Biographers dream of attracting millions of readers beyond their subject’s own sphere of influence, and the audience for photography, even for a demi-goddess like Arbus, is pitifully small. To unveil shadowy behavior between a pair of stellar American artists, previously unreported, would seem to guarantee tabloid coverage for your book, not just decorous reviews.

Few of us can resist the temptation to eavesdrop on intimate secrets, and in the gothic hierarchy of family sins—parental desertion, child abuse, rape and other acts of violence—incest may rank as the most unsettling because it need not be coercive. As such, it’s one of the foundation stories of Greek tragedy, Wagner’s Ring der Niebelungen, Freudian psychoanalysis and, if you believe what it says in the Old Testament and do the math, the human race.

On second thought, however, Lubow must have realized that, unless handled with the utmost delicacy, the disclosure could bring down everything else he hoped to construct in his ambitious 700-page book. If he dwelled on the illicit affair and allowed speculation to linger that Arbus felt crippling guilt for it, readers might seize on it as the glaring and pat explanation for her suicide. More dangerously, it could so threaten to warp our views of her (and of Nemerov) that we could never again see her photographs or his poems except through this lens.

The objectives of their professional lives, the successful struggle to become artists of the highest order—the reason we care to read about them at all—would thereby be totally eclipsed.

It is a credit to Lubow’s skills as a first-time biographer and his training as a journalist that he didn’t allow this to happen. The portrait he draws of Arbus is three-dimensional, sympathetic, neither prurient nor exculpatory, diligently sourced, and recognizably the same person who photographed with such cunning, bravery, shivering insight, and outrageous abandon.

Arbus’s willingness to enter worlds alien to her cossetted upbringing on Park Avenue—to overcome her own shyness and anxieties and to use fear as a prelude to photographing—was unique among her contemporaries. None of them accepted as much psychic risk in hunting for new kinds of pictures, and few emerged from the darkroom with images as potent and fraught.

The psychological battles she fought with her subjects—the ceaseless minor adjustments she made in finding an angle or a gesture that wouldn’t look as if the contest between them were rigged or overmatched—is one source of the tension felt by the viewer.

“The mistake is to imagine that she entirely empathized with her subjects or despised them, that she regarded these people as soul mates or repugnant,” writes Lubow. “Like a photograph, life isn’t just black and white. It comes in an infinite gradation of grays. This ambiguity allows Arbus’s photographs to retain their fascination, their mystery, and their unmatched capacity to generate discomfort.”

The book provides strong evidence of a steady flow between her visual and literary imaginations, a connection even more profound than the one found in Walker Evans, Robert Frank, or Robert Adams. By the time she was photographing in full swing, during the last 15 years of her life, she had developed what Keats called “negative capability“—the strength to remain poised in “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

A classic depressive and a 1960s sexual libertine who nonetheless functioned responsibly as a mother, Arbus was riddled with contradictions. As described in almost every chapter here, she was never able to reconcile her rebellious independence as an artist with her need for domestic security. She was born in New York City and never left home. Her emotional reliance on her husband, Allan Arbus, long after they had separated, and on her several mentors, chiefly Lisette Model and Marvin Israel, is movingly chronicled.

Their support gave her courage. She could explore nudist colonies in the nude and a home for the mentally disabled, knowing she had an audience eager to see and hear about the results. While photographing, she seems always to have been writing stories in her head about her adventures—comic, self-deprecating accounts for the entertainment of her friends.

I finished Lubow’s book more impressed than ever by the dazzling aura of her personality, the depth of her artistic convictions, and by her reckless vulnerability—her exposure to the likelihood of pain. If she was unnaturally attuned to the wavelength of misfits, it must have been that she saw herself in them. She photographed frailties in others because she had so many of her own.

***

In the wall text for her 1972 memorial show at MoMA, John Szarkowski wrote: “Diane Arbus was possessed by an intelligence so keen and lively that one listened with elbows on knees, so not to miss even one of the clear and simple surprises that her talk was rich with.”

For years after, only her friends knew this side of Arbus and could testify to what a captivating presence she had been. Patricia Bosworth’s 1984 biography offered glimpses of this bewitching creature in anecdotes that highlighted her wit and black humor. To her friend Alex Elliot, who met her in prep school and adored her all his life, the teenaged Diane wrote about his family: “Your father reminds me of the middle of the rug—worn; walked over—you’re the bright patch under the chair—you haven’t been touched yet.”

Only with the 2003 SFMOMA exhibition catalog, Diane Arbus: Revelations, however, did outsiders get an extended tour of her snaking, quicksilver thought processes. Dense with quotations from her letters, diaries, notebooks, and readings, the pages contain aphorisms (“A photograph is a secret about a secret”), wisecracks about the problems of securing releases (“if people are grand enough they have learned never to sign anything and if they are degraded enough they can’t”) as well as observations about the world and human behavior (“Everything that has been on earth has been different from any other thing. That is what I love: the differentness….”)

Here is a draft of a 1962 telegram to the Esquire editor, Harold Hayes, about her proposal to photograph in Disneyland for the magazine:

“Wonderful pseudo places at dawn in Disneyland, ruins of Cambodian temples which never existed. False deserts littered with bones of animals who never died. Mountain like a shrine for unbelievers. And black swans swim in the moat of a castle which looks like the advertisement for a dream.”

Lubow has tapped the riches of this archive via the SFMOMA catalog, which Bosworth could not. In retrospect, she cleared the way for him and did a commendable job, despite little help from Arbus’s friends and relatives and a sketchy under-standing of the photography scene in the 1950s and ‘60s. Lubow was able to re-interview some of the same people she had tracked down—Alex Eliot, Frederick Eberstadt, Tina Fredericks, Peter Crookson—and he also enjoyed the generous support of Allan Arbus as well as Robert Frank’s ex-wife, Mary Frank, which Bosworth had not. Two key figures, Gertrude Nemerov (Diane’s mother) and Howard Nemerov, had died before Lubow could reach them, as had peripheral friends from New York’s photo, film, and literary scenes, such as Garry Winogrand, Emile de Antonio, and Joseph Mitchell.

Luckily, Bosworth’s papers, containing her interviews with several of the now deceased, are at the Boston University Library, and Lubow had access to them. (The incest revelation, for instance, comes from a 1981 interview she did with Arbus’s psychiatrist, Dr. Helen Boigon. The information did not appear in Bosworth’s biography, probably because Howard Nemerov was still alive at the time of publication.)

Neither biography is a searching critical exegesis of her photographs or should be judged as such, and neither, for that matter, could reproduce any of her work due to the Arbus Estate’s notoriously strict controls.

Lubow’s nonetheless is the better, more complete and nuanced version of her life. With far more material to work with, he provides valuable background to some of her most famous portraits, from Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C 1962 to Identical Twins, Roselle, N.J. 1967, along with credible analyses of their meaning.

Arbus located her subjects by various methods: reading the Daily News, asking friends, walking intently around New York, or through a referral system—one oddball leading her to another. Her interest in strangers wasn’t feigned. When a promising subject blipped on her radar screen, she could be relentless in pursuit.

A sideshow performer, who was tattooed from head-to-toe and billed himself as “Jack Dracula,” refused her entreaties when they met at Coney Island or Hubert’s Freak Museum in Times Square during the 1960s. He kept demanding money and she didn’t play by those rules. When he finally relented and allowed her a couple of photographs, she wasn’t satisfied. “Sometimes I go back and back and back, it’s like I’m rubbing their nose in it,” she once said. “But I like that.”

When he moved to New London, CT, she tracked him down and, for the price of lunch and drinks and an offer of some free prints, he let her photograph him again. The result was the only “landscape format” (i.e. horizontal) in a series for Esquire. Stretched out on the grass, he proudly shows off some of the 306 inked pictures on his body.

Before they parted, she gave him a copy of Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, a tale about the state tattooing the law on the back of a condemned prisoner. Arbus was not averse to sleeping with subjects of either gender if they asked. (To be “hung up” about sex was a black mark of repression in the 1960s and had to be overcome at all costs.) But according to “Jack Black” he wasn’t interested.

“Diane Arbus was the plainest looking girl and she had no personality at all so far as I could see,” he told an interviewer in 2010.

Arbus was never a beauty or went to college. Instead, she found her emotional and intellectual security by marrying Allan Arbus when she was 18. He taught her to use a camera and develop film, and they had a respectable business as a fashion photography team while raising two daughters, Doon and Amy.

Then, in 1956, disgusted with the artifice and routines of this life, she took a 35 mm. camera and went exploring in the streets of New York on her own. Work from her early years as an independent agent (1956-1962) forms the basis of the new exhibition, Diane Arbus: In the Beginning at the Met Breuer.

Arbus attracted notice from editors for her intimate photographs of sideshow characters, but did not become a star until 1967, when she shared billing with Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander in MoMA’s New Documents exhibition. Typecast as a portraitist of “freaks,” she found that more magazines wanted to hire her, even if her ideas and theirs about what qualified as a successful photograph didn’t always coincide.

Lubow documents in colorful detail her travels in the demi-monde, on assignments and self-directed. But equal space is devoted to her family, friends, and colleagues. Various forms of self-doubt vexed her relationships with almost everyone, even as her originality and warmth inspired their protective affection.

One of the puzzles of Arbus’s career were her frequent money troubles late in life. Her parents owned Russek’s Department Store, a rival to Saks Fifth Avenue. She and her two siblings (older Howard and younger Renée) grew up in a palatial Manhattan apartment, with a chauffeur, a cook, and a staff of maids. Marrying the penniless Allan, Diane and her husband were aided substantially throughout the 1940s and ‘50s by her parents in setting up plush accommodations of their own.

But after 1961, when her father, David Nemerov, went bust after losing all of the money in shabby Florida real estate deals—money he had earned from the sale of Russek’s—Diane had to fend for herself, while raising two daughters. She was never entirely free of the terror that one day she would be unable to take care of them.

Arbus feelings toward Richard Avedon were complicated by her envy of his money, worldly power, the glamorous figure he cut around town, and his confidence in the studio. At the same time, she secretly disliked the frigidity of his portraits and regarded him as a commercial sell-out. He, in turn, envied her steely resolve to sacrifice for her art, to make a precarious living outside the meretricious world of fashion magazines, and he noted her loftier standing among people whose opinion mattered to him, such as Szarkowski.

But in the dark hours of Arbus’s soul—and there were many—Avedon seems to have been there, happy to take her calls and chat for hours, and then, in the morning, to praise her work to others who could help her career. He also did his part by hiring her daughter, Doon, as an assistant.

Central to all their lives was the brilliant and tempestuous artist and art director, Marvin Israel. He and Avedon worked together at Harper’s Bazaar and, after being fired for one too many acts of editorial arrogance, would go on to design all of the photographer’s exhibitions in the 1970s. After Avedon introduced them, Israel also became Arbus’s mentor, ardent supporter, and her lover, although both were married.

This combustible set of relationships dominates the last third of Lubow’s book and has a built-in momentum because we know the tragic end to the story.

Lubow detonates the incest grenade early in the book, and quietly, on page 19: “In the last two years of her life, she paid weekly visits to a psychiatrist in an effort to cope with her depression. She revealed in those sessions that the sexual relationship with Howard that began in adolescence had never ended. She said she last went to bed with him in July 1971. That was only a couple of weeks before her death.

“Characteristically, she referred to their ongoing sexual liason in an offhand way, as if there was nothing so remarkable about it.”

Although the topic isn’t mentioned again in the book, its ruinous potential simmers throughout. For someone who thought that a “photograph is a secret about a secret,” Lubow suggests, this secret love affair is one she knew had to be keep carefully hidden.

When her fragile emotional state finally collapsed in 1970, Israel was the main culprit. The book’s second reveal is that Arbus may have been pushed over the edge, from despair to suicide, when she felt abandoned by her lover and defender, and when learned he was sleeping with her daughter, Doon. Arbus’s friends, including Mary Frank, were furious when they found out.

“We felt murderous towards him,” the artist Nancy Grossman told Lubow.

It was Israel who discovered Arbus’s body in her Westbeth apartment and read the last words in her diary: “The Last Supper.” (In a life that had more than its share of ominous ambiguities, here is another: Was Diane accusing Marvin of being Judas? And if so, then did she see herself as Christ?)

Although Israel did not attend the funeral, he wrote Arbus’s brother a scathing letter afterward. Lubow quotes it in full:

     Howard

     I am enraged by what you have helped to make. You—with your Temple-Emanuel voice and your complete indifference. If I could condemn you I would.

     I wanted to meet you Sunday. But each time I thought my dark thoughts the thunder increased the rain and I was certain it was Diane scolding me.

     I wanted to tell you about Diane, to show you her work, to explain to you, to have you see, feel, why Diane is dead.

     I want you to know because you do not want to know.

     You have been here and you have gone and you have been no place.

     Marvin

The letter indicates that Israel may have known or suspected Howard’s decades-long affair with Diane, which means that she had shared the secret with him—another reason for her to be fatally wounded by Israel’s betrayal. (Distasteful though it may be to contemplate—and Lubow doesn’t dare—Diane’s relationship with her brother may have been the longest and stablest that she had with any man.)

But Israel may also have been rightfully enraged that the even-tempered Nemerov had no clue that his worshipful little sister was a magnificent artist—greater than he, and more effortlessly smart, despite his Harvard degree, tenured professorship, regular appearances in The New Yorker, and measured view of life’s travails. As the art historian Alexander Nemerov wrote in last year’s tribute to his aunt, Silent Dialogues: Diane Arbus and Howard Nemerov (reviewed here), his father the poet had an unnatural distaste for photography and no appreciation of its challenges or pleasures as an artistic discipline.

Reviews of Lubow’s book have called his disclosures “titillating” or “sensational.” This is grossly unfair. He hasn’t reported lubriciously on Arbus’s behavior or moralized about the loose sexual ethos of the ‘60s, although she could be seen as one of the casualties of the prevalent attitude that everyone could sleep with anyone. Her suicide is described almost as if it happened offstage, without gruesome notes from the autopsy report. Whereas Bosworth’s tone is more breathless and fun, his maintains a stately pace. He rarely speculates or theorizes beyond what he can report from interviews or documents.

Some people will hate Lubow for bringing to light unsavory truths. Comparisons with Sylvia Plath’s biographers are inevitable. The disclosures about the multiple infidelities of Ted Hughes can’t help but color interpretations of her poems for many readers, however much we wish that weren’t the case. For Arbus’s children, as for Plath’s, the shadow of their famous mothers’ deaths must be long, cold and smothering—the arts and letters equivalent of being Caroline Kennedy.

Ironically, Lubow’s research makes the tough, wary attitude of the Arbus Estate toward biographers more acceptable: hordes of gawkers should not be allowed to trample through this material.

The daughters and Allan Arbus should consider themselves fortunate that Lubow took on the job. One cannot read his book without thinking what a privilege it must have been to know her, or to be related to her. Her photographs are no more or less disturbing than they were before. If anything, the images seem even more ethereal and detached from the gravity of biographic fact.

What Szarkowski wrote a year after her death is true now: “She had assigned herself the task of photographing mysteries so shy, fugitive, and terrific that they, or she, might have been frightened off, had the issues been openly stated.”

Collector’s POV: The estate of Diane Arbus is represented by Cheim & Read in New York (here) and Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco (here). Arbus’ prints are ubiquitous at in the secondary markets, both in the photography and contemporary art sales. Recent prices have ranged from roughly $5000 (lesser known images/posthumous prints) to nearly $800000 (vintage icons).

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Read more about: Diane Arbus, Harper Collins/Ecco

One comment

  1. Pete /

    Thanks for the super-long review.

    I include Arbus among those souls ‘oppressed by the figures of beauty’ who consoled themselves that ‘we are ugly but we have the music.’ And in Diane’s case she definitely had ‘the photography’.

    (lines from Leonard Cohen’s ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’)

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