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The Inner Life of Diane Arbus

by William Todd Schultz

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-60819-519-0
Publisher: Bloomsbury

A theorist of psychobiography offers an example of his favored approach in an exploration of a most perplexing figure, the edgy and controversial photographer Diane Arbus (1923–1971).

Arbus provides a promising canvas for Schultz, who’s also written about Truman Capote (Tiny Terror, 2011). He sketches the privileged childhood of Arbus, whose brother was poet Howard Nemerov (the talented siblings engaged in a little youthful sex play, says Schultz), and highlights the significance of an early memory of seeing a shantytown. The author moves briskly through her career, returning continually to the notion that as Arbus’ subject were often freaks, so she, too, was one. He dusts off the familiar notion that her photographs are generally about herself—she sought herself, reflected herself, found herself in others. Her final group of subjects—the mentally retarded—she found frustrating to work with, writes Schultz, because she could not elicit from them the interactions she found so essential. The author also focuses on Arbus’ sex life, noting how frequently she posed her subjects in their beds (including TV icons Ozzie and Harriet in 1971) and how she sometimes engaged in sex acts with the people she was photographing. She seduced her subjects, writes Schultz, sometimes in multiple ways. An exception was Germaine Greer; their session was a remarkable struggle of wills, which Greer won. Arbus had one failed marriage, a late-life affair that didn’t work out, countless sex partners, a battle with hepatitis, an odd course of psychotherapy and issues with cash flow—all culminating in the stress and depression that led to her suicide. Schultz writes in detail about her death and remains uncertain if she fully intended to kill herself.

Though sometimes clanging with psychological jargon, a biography that wisely recognizes the ultimate mystery of every life.