I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.
For once, this blog is timely: the Met currently has on Diane Arbus: In the Beginning.
Diane Arbus: A Biography – Patricia Bosworth
Worth reading for readers interested in the influential photographer. In the late Sixties and early Seventies, Arbus gained notoriety for her pictures that seemed to reveal the psychological states of her subjects. Critics praised and certain kinds of fans were attracted by her photos of unusual people such as circus performers, transvestites, dwarves, and nudists. But she also took stark unsettling photos of the notable (Mae West, Mia Farrow, Twiggy, etc.) and more or less ordinary people like patriots and anti-war protestors, babies and children, families, and platinum blondes with beehive hairdos. Her studies of identical twins influenced Stanly Kubrick to insert the ghostly twin sisters in The Shining.
Arbus’ wealthy parents thought that the less experience of street life a female child received, the better for her development. Arbus consequently grew up afraid of the unknown and unusual. She knew anxiety and isolation would choke anything like a life so she confronted her fear by being fearless. Protected by cameras slung around her neck, she would charm would-be subjects on the street, in parks, at the automat, or marginal venues such as nudist camps, circus sideshows, backstage at cross-dressing clubs, or group gropes.
She also got in people’s faces. Germaine Greer and Jacqueline Susann’s widower tell stories of Arbus deliberately trying to get a rise out of them to get memorable portraits. I imagine her work comes up in discussions of the ethics of creative endeavors. How far can a photographer play unfair, act unjustly, or disrespect subjects to get a great photo? When covering the cognitively disabled at a Halloween picnic, should, and if so how, the photographer obtain their or their guardians’ legally effective consent to take and release their images? Or is this needless because they are wearing masks and thus anonymous? Or needless because a person's appearance is already public? Do photographic subjects have any claim to fairness, respect, or kindness? Or is the argument – hey, you want a great shot, you wanna say something real, you gotta break some eggs?
Her photography was driven by her desire to communicate about people that we usually overlook or think about in stereotyped ways. She challenges us to think about how it feels to be somebody else, feeling the unease about inevitable sickness and mortality, but facing a legion of differing circumstances. She said, “I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn't photograph them.”
The quintessential lonely artist, Arbus pursued her vision at all costs, to herself, or to her family, or to her subjects. She had a wide circle among photographers and helpful mentors, but she didn’t pursue success with parties, schmoozing, and networking. She was subject to bleak depressions which exhausted her friends and relatives. Sadness also undermined her dealing with the demands of success and fame (but shockingly little money) on her financial resources, time, energy, and thought. She did not deal with the prospect of ageing gracefully. Although she was in therapy, the sessions seemed not to help. After a couple of serious bouts with hepatitis, her depressions became all consuming, until she took her own life in 1971.
The biography is credible because Bosworth interviewed Arbus' mother and brother (the estate, run by her daughter Doon, did not cooperate), friends, colleagues, models and subjects. There are endnotes and citations that lend this popular biography some scholarly heft. She also uses Arbus’ own notes and interviews she did, for example, with Studs Terkel. This book is as intellectually satisfying as her exceptional biography of Montgomery Clift, which is also well worth reading. Bosworth is particularly informative about scenes I had no idea about such the fashion world of the 1950s and the NYC art scene of the 1960s. People interested in the milieu of Andy Warhol, Richard Avedon, and Robert Frank will get much from this book.