Photographer Diane Arbus (1923-1971) was addicted to danger, sex, and human oddities.
Arbus left a huge legacy of prints, contact sheets, journals, appointment diaries, unpublished writings, and letters. Unfortunately, her estate does not allow researchers access to this material, nor did they authorize publication of Arbus’ photographs for this biography. Nonetheless, Lubow (The Reporter Who Would Be King, 1992), who has served as a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and a staff writer at the New Yorker, perceptively describes 164 images, providing information about where readers can find them published. Drawing on a huge number of interviews, related archives, and Arbus’ several publications, the author produces a thorough, sympathetic portrait of a complicated woman who, from childhood on, stood out as “totally original.” Arbus began her career as a fashion photographer with her husband, Allan Arbus. The couple did advertising work for Arbus’ father, who owned a luxury department store, with Allan clicking the shutter and Diane staging the models. Soon, the couple got assignments for Glamour and Vogue, where their work was published alongside that of Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. Diane, though, was bored with fashion photography, and a course with Berenice Abbott inspired her interest in photography as an art. In 1953, with a Vogue press pass to photograph the circus, she became entranced by little people, who, writes the author, “were Diane’s introduction to the sideshow freaks whose portraits became her trademark.” “I do what gnaws at me,” she told her teacher Lisette Model. Those subjects ranged from “unsparing portraits of the rich” to “grim and tawdry” sex scenes. After her marriage ended, Arbus intensified her “compulsive fervor” for promiscuous sex, which likely caused hepatitis. Although a critical success, she doubted her talents; Lubow chronicles the deepening depressions that led to her suicide.
Despite limitations on research, Lubow sharply captures Arbus’ restlessness, pain, and artistic vision.