'Diane Arbus': Genius? Predator? Is there a difference?

Diane Arbus
Portrait of a Photographer

By Arthur Lubow

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"Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer," by Arthur Lubox.

Ecco. 752 pp. $21


Reviewed by Tara Murtha


Street photographers always walk a tightrope between art and exploitation, and no American artist has walked a tightrope as taut as legendary New York photographer Diane Arbus. More than four decades since her death, the question of exploitation in her work is brought back to the fore with the publication of a stellar new biography and a summer exhibition of her early work.

Last month, a major Arbus show opened at the Met Breuer building at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. "Diane Arbus: In the Beginning" includes more than 100 photographs spanning 1956 to 1962. Two-thirds of the images have never before been displayed, and her estate is notoriously strict with licensing, so the show provides a rare opportunity. Even longtime magazine writer Arthur Lubow's new biography, Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer, a 700-plus-page, ruthlessly researched and beautifully written book, contains no images except for the single portrait of Arbus on the cover.

The debate over whether Arbus was a genius artist or artistic vampire shifts with the times. The current era of cultural criticism is hyper-concerned with the power dynamics inherent in the production of images and narratives. Art and media, if there's still a difference, are endlessly problematic. Contemporary detractors don't have to dig terribly deep into this latest biography to bolster the argument that Arbus' work represents a visual devouring of vulnerable members of society for the consumption of the relatively rich.

Arbus, of course, is best known for her stark, off-kilter photos of nudists, twins, and triplets, orgygoers, and people suffering mental health disorders, as well as so-called freaks - often sideshow performers - with unusual or particularly stigmatized disabilities or afflictions. Lubow is forthcoming in his depiction of Arbus as an ambitious careerist who sought commercial success and art-world validation by selling such images, often without the subjects' consent. At times, it's tempting to dismiss her altogether, as Susan Sontag notoriously did in 1973, when she wrote that Arbus "seems to have enrolled in one of art photography's most visible enterprises - concentrating on victims, the unfortunate, the dispossessed - but without the compassionate purpose that such a project is expected to serve."

Lubow walks a tightrope himself. He defends Arbus and expertly places her work within the history of photography - noting, for example, the 1958 publication of Robert Frank's book The Americans. But he also refrains from filtering out unflattering details.

Arbus could be predatory, but she also viewed her subjects as collaborators. And she considered herself an outsider, too. She was a conventionally attractive married mother who often sank into bouts of depression, and who often relied on seduction - both artistic and sexual - as a way to confirm her own presence in the world. With access to Arbus' journals and archived letters, Lubow assembles 85 overlapping vignettes that reveal a woman who refused to be a conventional 1950s housewife but who suffered all the same.

Arbus married Allan Arbus, a photographer now best known as an actor who played Dr. Sidney Freedman on the sitcom M*A*S*H. With the help of family connections, the Arbuses launched a career as husband-and-wife fashion photographers. They were working on one such shoot when Diane suddenly quit. Lubow cleverly dubs it "the decisive moment," an echo of French street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, celebrating the split-second collision of opportunity and a photographer's intuition.

Then the circus came to town. She secured a press pass, went backstage and talked to performers, and the rest is American art history.

Maybe it's for the best that Lubow's biography contains no images, leaving us to focus on the patterns of Arbus' life and work, undistracted by photographs of people who are now dead in a city that has since disappeared, snapshots from an impossible vacation from herself. Arbus was only 48 when she committed suicide in 1971.

Tara Murtha is the author of "Bobbie Gentry's 'Ode to Billie Joe.' "