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Diane Arbus: A Biography

by Patricia Bosworth, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1984, 352 pp. $17.95 hard cover.

Magazine Work

by Diane Arbus, edited with a preface by Doon Arbus and Marvin Israel. New York: Aperture, 1984, 176 pp., $35.00, hard cover
A review by Elsa Dorfman
Originally published in The Women's Review of Books

See also my review of Untitled, by Diane Arbus

In 1971 Diane Arbus, the most notable woman photographer since Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke White, committed suicide. She was 48, at the height of her success and her creative powers. The usual diagnosis is that she paid for her arresting work and the (then) unconventional subject matter of her portraits with her life; the life that prompted her to ferret out her subject matter was finally too hot for her to handle. Patricia Bosworth, in her poorly written, mostly undocumented, but nonetheless absorbing biography, follows in this tradition: moody, artistic, fey rich girl, simultaneously isolated and protected, indulged and neglected, grows up to peer at the horrific and the forbidden, and to put herself in situations of titillating danger. Her visions of the other reality and her kinky tastes while in pursuit of her images drive her to kill herself. We don't have to be told that the book is going to become a major movie.

Patricia Bosworth, who had previously written a "fanzine" biography of the actor Montgomery Clift, began research on the life of Diane Arbus in 1978. Like almost every other researcher, she was denied access to Arbus' unpublished work by the Arbus estate. Whereas photographic historians and serious biographers would never take on the biography of a subject whose husband, daughters and executor, mentor and intimates would not cooperate, Bosworth was unfazed; apparently she had the modest goal of another popular fanzine story which would sell beyond the market for an artist's biography. She did, however, gain the cooperation of Diane Arbus' mother, her brother (the poet Howard Nemerov) and her sister Renee Nemerov Sparkia, and also of Diane's classmates and teachers at Fieldston, the (still) progressive secondary school of Forest Hills, New York. She also seems to have interviewed most of the editors and photographers whose paths crossed Diane's in the fifties and sixties, as well as some of the people whom she photographed - notably Viva, Irving Mansfield, Ti-Grace Atkinson, Presto the Fire-Eater, the Amazing Randi and Polly Bushing. Except for short excerpts from a few widely known articles published in the mainstream press since 1971 and transcripts of interviews (on National Public Radio) by Amy Arbus and Richard Avedon, Bosworth depends totally on oral interviews.

The book abounds in what I suspect is improvisation, hearsay and undocumented speculation. The standards of language and accuracy (let alone interpretation) are very low. If Bosworth had been a better writer - or a more thoughtful interviewer - she could have better served the oral material she did gather. If the material had been edited into an impressionistic montage (as George Plimpton and Jean Stein recently did with their material on Edie Sedgwick in Edie), it might have conveyed a more immediate and literate account, and left the reader to sift through the biases of each interviewee. (I was surprised to discover that Robert Gottlieb, president and editor-in-chief at Knopf, was the editor for both Edie and Diane Arbus; I had taken the latter book to be the product of a novice editor, since its problems are so glaring.)

The outline of Diane Arbus' life is by now familiar. She grew up rich, protected, and isolated in New York City in the 1930s. She was educated at the best progressive Manhattan schools. She married at eighteen in 1941. Always artistic, she picked up her first camera at around twenty in 1943 because her husband was studying photography in the army. She gave birth to her furst daughter at twenty-two in 1945. In 1946, though uninterested in fashion, she opened a fashion photography studio with her husband. In 1957, after having endured a life in fashion photography for eleven years, she quit the business in order to devote herself to her own personal photography. In 1958, she begain to try to make a living as a portrait photographer, choosing to make portraits of people who lived unusual lives at the edge of society. In the next twelve years, she produced a large and enduring body of work, was featured in a major show at the Museum of Modern Art, and was honored at the Venice Biennale months after she ended her life in 1971.

Bosworth keeps on reminding us that Arbus was only interested in the aberration, off-beat sexual practices, tortured sexual identities, and physical and mental deformities of her subjects. She suggests that Arbus was purposely exploitative and sensationalistic. Ironically, this is precisely Bosworth's own approach to her subject. She is obsessed with real and imagined aberration, speculates about what she considers offbeat sexual practices, imagines tortured sexual conflicts...Diane Arbus eludes Bosworth completely.

The interesting questions are left unasked, let alone, unanswered: How did this woman, brought up in the most constricting, conventional environment, come to have such a unique personal vision in which style and subject-matter were perfectly matched? How did she produce so much valuable work in just eleven years? Why was she so insecure and uncomfortable with her talent? Was her insecurity and lack of self-esteem (as reported, I suspect accurately, by Studs Terkel) related to her narrow, ungenerous vision? Was she afraid of her own success? And finally, why did she, like Sylvia Plath before her in 1963, end her life? (There are parallels: neither Sexton nor Arbus had any identity as feminists; neither related their experiences to political feminist issues or saw them as part of a larger picture. Both sought help from mainstream psychiatry which was unequipped to help them with the gender-related aspects of their unhappiness. Both were insecure and suspicious that their success was undeserved. Happily, I cannot think of a creative woman in the arts who has committed suicide since Sexton - perhaps women now don't internalize their pain so much, or feel so embarrassed by their own talents?)

Bosworth has interviewed several of Arbus' Fieldston classmates who remember fourteen-year-old Diane Nemerov's obsession with nineteen-year-old Allan Arbus, most notably the psychologist and writer Eda LeShan and the photo historian Naomi Rosenbloom. But she never wonders if Diane's crush had to do with her being the middle child whose brilliant older brother was just then going off to Harvard. Was she afraid of her own success as a high school student? Was she afraid of the talent her high school art teacher said she had? With Howard out of the house, did she feel more acutely that she had to escape her family? And what about Allan Arbus: who was he? At nineteen, why was he smitten with a fourteen-year-old? Did he see Diane as a wealthy princess? Was he saving her from her family? Did he want to be part of Central Park West? Why didn't he encourage Diane to go on with her education? Why didn't she apply to Sarah Lawrence? Black Mountain? Bennington? (She did tell Studs Terkel that it was a relief when her father, after praising her gift for painting, dismissed it as a hobby. Her true goal, he said, was to live under the wing of a man. Did Allan Arbus, who consistently called Diane "Girl," share David Nemerov's view of woman's role?)

Bosworth describes the extravagances of the Nemerov family: the large apartments at great addresses, the cook, the chauffeur, the maids, the laundress, the nannies. But she fails to examine what seems to me the strangest thing about the wealth of Diane's parents: that they never gave any money to their children once the children had left the house. All their resources were spent, it seems, on the personal indulgences of David and Gertrude Nemerov. Diane didn't have a stash of war bonds in her name at the end of World War II; she didn't have a trust fund; she didn't get monthly dividends from stocks her parents had purchased in her name. Though she had been brought up with wealth, to think money was elastic and always there, brought up without the skills to earn, preserve or manage it, she was just dumped into the world. Were Gertrude and David Nemerov determined to display their power over their adult children by withholding gifts and assistance?

Bosworth's account of Diane Arbus' eleven years as a fashion photographer with her husband is the story of the perfectionistic stylist who runs around Manhattan for the perfect necklace and the perfect shawl, soothes nervous models, helps Allan and the art directors develop the photographic concept, takes the Arbus portfolio around to agencies - all the while increasingly hating the routine. She reports that Arbus used a camera privately during this period, but she doesn't say what Arbus was interested in visually.

In 1959, Diane and Allan Arbus were estranged, if not formally separated; she knew, according to Bosworth, that her marriage (which did not officially end until 1969) was over. So, at the age of thirty-six, after working with a camera for at least fifteen years, with one daughter of five and one of fourteen, separated from the husband she had known for twenty-two years, Diane Arbus began to form her own vision. Bosworth never asks if the separation from Allan Arbus was liberating. Perhaps he wanted his wife to be his stylist, not an artist in her own right? Perhaps he could not tolerate her taking the risks he had been afraid to take? Perhaps after fifteen years of working day in and day out as a photographic professional, Diane Arbus had an unarticulated but coherent sense of what she thought a portrait should be.

The conventional view, which Bosworth espouses, is that in 1959 she was an empty vessel, soon to be influenced by Marvin Israel and Richard Avedon (strong male figures like her father and her husband) and by Lisette Model, with whom she studied at the New School. This is to overlook the impact of that long apprenticeship, the participation in the New York avant-garde scene, and the sophistication gleaned from a lifetime spent in Manhattan. The unyielding momentum of Bosworth's text is toward lassitude and melancholia. She doesn't acknowledge the tremendous drive and energy that Arbus output from 1960 to 1970 represents (let alone the energy needed to maintain a domestic life for her daughter Amy). By 1967, Arbus had been awarded a second Guggenheim Fellowship and was one of four photographers featured in the New Documents show at the Museum of Modern Art - surely a triumph for a woman who had slogged away at a job she hated for eleven years.

Arbus' magazine work, created from 1960 to 1970, is the subject of the second monograph devoted to her. The first monograph, titled simply Diane Arbus, was published by Aperture twelve years ago, posthumously. Both have been edited by Doon Arbus and the late Marvin Israel and may be perceived as the Arbus canon as put forth by her estate (of which Doon is the tightly controlling executor). Here we have most of the magazine photographs to which Bosworth refers in the latter half of her book: James T. Farrell, Norman Mailer, the Gish sisters, and some portraits of children from the New York Times Magazine Supplements. Missing are the portraits of Viva from New York Magazine and the portraits of Ti-Grace Atkinson taken for Newsweek. Happily, a stunning portrait of Germaine Greer, who aptly described her ordeal of posing for Arbus to Bosworth, is included. Also included are the texts which Diane Arbus wrote to go along with her portraits - particularly in the five-image cycle "The Full Circle," and the four-image cycle, "The Soothsayers." Arbus' texts for "The Bishop's Charisma," "Mae West," "Notes on the Nudist Camp," Hubert's "Obituary," and "Tokyo Rose is Home" are also reprinted.

Bosworth doesn't deal at all with Arbus as a writer - and even Doon Arbus and Marvin Israel do not present it as remarkable that she was a talented writer or that her texts are at least as interesting as her images. I, however, am amazed at this other dimension of her talent. It is a pity she never expanded her work into a form longer or more elaborate than five or six images. I wonder how much more of her writing exists. Now several photographers write about their images but in 1961 this was quite an innovation and to do it with such skill is awesome.

I love many of the portraits in Magazine Work - Madame Gres, W.H. Auden and Marianne Moore, Brenda Frazier, Mel Lyman, Anderson Hayes Cooper, Jorge Luis Borges, a group of motorcyclists, the Reverend Albert B. Cleage, Jr., a group at Sun City, a retirement community (the only Arbus image I have ever seen of people happy and amused), young Mia Farrow, female impersonators back stage, peace marchers, and Peter Ustinov - but most are mundane, similar looking and mean-spirited, and not as interesting as the images in the first monograph which included what Arbus herself considered "her real work." Perhaps Arbus' contact prints contain more enduring portraits of these same people, images that wouldn't be appropriate for the pages of Show, New York, Esquire. But Magazine Work is work that she did on commission for publication, to earn money, and it shows.

Arbus wasn't a feminist; she apparently felt a woman needed a man, she had low self esteem, was afraid of her talent, didn't believe her work was as good as people said it was, thought that the good things that happened to her were due to luck, not that she had made them happen to her. But all this seems more of a piece with the place where many women of her generation were, rather than evidence of pathology. I have heard gifted women, now sixty, excuse away their achievements, dismiss their talents, and refuse to accept credit for what they have done. I know they aren't sick: they just can't tolerate believing that they made things happen. I believe that Diane Arbus never accepted her strength; that doesn't mean that the strengths weren't there and weren't being used.

Bosworth never wonders about the impact of those eleven years as a stylist on Arbus' imagination. How did they affect her sense of the role of the photographer, her ability to work with models, her view of her subject as a model, her sense of the control of the photographer, of the right of the photographer to appropriate her subject-matter? Surely she developed a sense of the frame and an appreciation of the apt detail. Bosworth doesn't ask if perhaps it is the six-foot-tall, ninety-seven pound model who is the real oddity, not the transvestite with hair in curlers. She doesn't ask if Arbus' stance towards her subjects is related to the attitude of the fashion photographer towards her model. Nor does she suggest that there is an irony in the fact that the former stylist who worked fiendishly to make beautiful people and sleek products look even more beautiful, ideal and admirable, ultimately preferred to make portraits of people at their worst and most vulnerable.

It is only very recently that people have been photographing the domestic, the familiar and the commonplace. In the sixties people photographed outside their experience. They hit the road. (Photographers have always gone slumming with their cameras: Walker Evans was educated at Andover, and nothing was further from his roots or his nature than the poor in the south; Lisette Model was brought up in a castle; Robert Frank was an urban upper-class Swiss.) It was inevitable that someone would choose people at carnivals, at side-shows and nudist camps. It was not inevitable that it would be a woman or that her vision would be so mannered and sophisticated. Consider the work of Arbus' peers: Helen Leavitt and Evelyn Hofer. All of them at one time or another worked on the street, but none of them was in the least bit daring in the choice of subject-matter. If a white male had chosen Arbus' subjects, would he have been described as inventive and venturesome - or as perverse, obsessional, careening towards suicide?

To get a portrait of a person, you have to seduce your subject. It doesn't mean you are an amoral seductress. You need something from your subject when your subject may not even realize she has it to give. It is fun to go into a totally new scene with your camera. You are special. You're almost invisible, though of course you are so visible. You do feel a mystical protection. Getting your image, your portrait, involves a combination of manipulation, empathy and capture. Even Alice Neel described her painting of portraits as the collecting of souls. It is a process, not a pathology. And from her years in fashion, Arbus was probably better at manipulating her subjects than most people are.

What does interest me about Arbus' working style is how relentless she was and how hard she made everything for herself. Apparently she couldn't stand to be lucky and she couldn't stand for things to be easy. She lugged around lots of cameras and lots of lenses - all of it heavy. Why did she bother? It wouldn't have been a tragedy if she'd taken one lens and made do. Some of her subjects describe her as assaultive and I agree, it sounds awful to have been an Arbus subject. But I wonder if some of her persistence wasn't from insecurity about what was or wasn't yet on the film. It would be interesting to know where in the shooting the best image typically came. Was it in fact at the end of the session?

Of course some of Arbus' pictures are intrusive. She seemed obsessed with going into people's bedrooms to photograph them. Maybe she was right that the bedroom is the place where we are most ourselves. But it takes incredible chutzpah and determination to get your subjects to let you go home with them and to let you in their bedroom. It takes a certain mind-set to think you are entitled to ask them to let you in their bedroom. Not many photographers have the energy or the commitment to get to that point with a subject. Or the inherent curiosity.

There is a sort of meanness in Arbus's images, an insistence on showing people in discomfort, looking their worst. It is as if Arbus had decided that when people look their most awkward, their most abject, they are the most themselves. But that is an interpretation the photographer is making of someone else. It implies a struggle with the subject, a determination not to buy what the subject wants to sell. It has to do with control and an icy arrogance. It's almost an intellectual idea, that vulnerable is more real. Or perhaps vulnerable is more satisfying to the photographer-voyeur. Though Arbus says that she likes survivors, only in certain pictures is she drawn to survivors. Surely the young couple with their retarded child or the parents of Eddie Carmel, the giant, are survivors. But Arbus is drawn to pursue the momentary horror of their situations rather than honor their courage.

Much more arresting and unusual than her subject-matter is Arbus' use of frontality, of putting her subject right there in the middle of the square frame. Of looking at them and having them look at her. There is something about a square that is marvelous, that in a portrait is absolutely the right shape. (And in magazines a square portrait stands out against the dimensions of the page.) I can't think of anyone before Arbus who used the uncropped square to such advantage. It's how she put her people in that square - not what social group they came from - that makes her images endure.

I keep wanting to rewrite that last chapter to keep July 26, 1971 from arriving. To Bosworth the suicide was the predictable conclusion to the life and the work; her text marches relentlessly toward the date. I try to figure out what could have caused it, avoiding the explanation that its seeds are in the huge apartment on Central Park West. Surely there must be an element of chance in suicide, especially at the first attempt. Why didn't someone march Arbus off to the best doctors? She had had hepatitis in 1966 and again in 1968; everyone knows how devastating the depression that goes with hepatitis can be. She had been inordinately productive for ten years; perhaps she was psychically exhausted. Allan Arbus had moved to California, Doon had her own apartment, Amy was in boarding school: she had an empty nest. She was 48 and perhaps her body was changing in ways that unnerved her. She had to hustle to get magazine work; perhaps she simply needed a long rest.

Bosworth doesn't describe intimate friends, men or women, who were there to help Arbus ride out her fatigue and depression. In fact, from Bosworth's description it sounds as if Arbus' friends didn't take her complaints of being exhausted, not feeling well, and being depressed seriously. (Marvin Israel had actually had Diane help him finish a miniature sculpture of a person lying on a bed, wrists obviously slashed.) There may not be one big "because." We can only wish that July 26 (which had also included lunch at the Russian Tea Room) had ended differently.

It's too bad that Bosworth's book is going to be made into a movie.*   I cringe at the thought of her interpretation of Arbus' life and work writ large on the screen. It will be harder and harder to salvage the multidimensional Diane Arbus from this inverted hagiography. For a fuller picture of her life and her work we may have to wait for Doon or Amy Arbus to write about their mother. They were there as no one else was and they live now in an intimate relationship with her work. More daughters have been writing about their parents in recent years: Susan Cheever, Kim Chernin, Catherine Bateson... We have to hope that one of the Arbus daughters will choose to follow that lead.

* n.b.Many people has written me asking abt THE MOVIE. It was never made.


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