Beauty and the freak: inside the awful, wonderful world of Diane Arbus

From photographing "freaks" to weekend affairs, a biography of Arbus brings a new dimension to her stunning photographic legacy.

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When, in the mid-1950s, a softly spoken fashion photographer started to approach extraordinary-looking people in Central Park and Washington Square in New York City, and in diners, on buses and on the beaches and boardwalks of Coney Island, she could honestly say that, bored by perfect models, the portraits she persuaded them to sit for were “just for me”.

Even after these private projects made Diane Arbus famous, she maintained that art should be its own reward. “I can’t believe that money is any sort of proper reward for art,” she said. “Art seems to me like just something you do because it makes you feel good to do it.” Publishing and exhibiting, she explained, complicated the conversations that she’d had with her subjects.

Today, the record for the sale of an Arbus print is held by Child With a Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, NYC (1962), which sold for $785,000 last year. The Arbus archives – donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2007 by her two daughters, Doon and Amy – are closed and, for her fans, they have the same kind of mythic status as Sylvia Plath’s missing journal holds. “In the Beginning”, a long-awaited selection of her earliest work, is on show there at the moment, with a catalogue distributed by Yale University Press.

Although she had a privileged childhood (the Fifth Avenue department store Russeks was the family’s lucrative business), Arbus’s adult life was beset with financial problems. The black sense of humour brought to the fore in Arthur Lubow’s Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer makes you think that she would have seen the funny side of how a single print of hers is now worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. And yet today, even with ever-rising prices for her work and a growing market, Arbus’s eye for a flaw leaves her vulnerable to accusations of cruelty.

In the early 1960s, her work coincided with the rise of the New Journalism. It is certainly true that, in her magazine commissions, she could go for the jugular with the best of them. “Giving a camera to Diane Arbus is like putting a live grenade in the hands of a child,” raged Norman Mailer, after seeing her portrait of him in which he sits in an armchair like a tiny man-child: his feet don’t touch the ground and, mid-flow, he is thrusting his crotch towards the camera. “Yeah, yeah, sure . . .” one imagines her mumbling, wide-eyed, as she quietly went about her business, skewering him for all time.

Arbus’s death in 1971 at the age of 48 was a suicide. As a result, like Plath’s, her life has all too often been read backwards. As Lubow writes, “Arbus after her suicide was widely thought to have recorded her pain in her art . . . to have sacrificed her emotional well-being by looking too unblinkingly at the anguished, abject and misshapen.” When asked how she was, her most ­frequent response was Woody Allen-ish: “Everything is awful.”

Helped by Arbus’s closest friends and a keen pursuit of her subjects, Lubow offers an important refutation of the myth: that of the uptown Alice in Wonderland, cosseted from reality, who jumped into the grimy rabbit hole downtown and never made it back. Instead, his reading of her work presents her as an artist offering “a giggle in the face of calamity”.

Whether she was photographing bad circus acts, Mailer, Mae West, ageing socialites or posturing teens, the argument for a mordant wit in her work convinces, but it’s a knottier question whether that giggle is “at” or “with” her subjects. To Susan Sontag, Arbus was a spoiled “supertourist . . . an extension of the anthropologist, visiting natives and bringing back news of their exotic doings and strange gear”. But this interpretation was less a criticism of the art than a character assassination. As Sontag put it, Arbus’s “interest in freaks expresses a desire to violate her own innocence, to undermine her sense of being privileged, to vent her frustration at being safe”.

This ignores how beautiful Arbus found her subjects. According to her mentor and lover Marvin Israel: “Diane was absolutely delighted by the people that she met. And perhaps the one thing that gave her total ­enthusiasm and energy was the possibility of finding more of these people.”

During a debate with students about her “freaks” in 1970, she insisted: “You may say I’m telling you these people are ugly. I’m not. I don’t think I am.” As well as ordinary New Yorkers from all walks of life, her ­obsessions were the circus performers, immigrant dwarves, plain-looking strippers and unconvincing transsexuals whom she affectionately called her “freaks”. What becomes of her reputation when that is a word that can no longer be used without inverted commas? Lubow’s impassioned case for her may well become more and not less of an ­urgent project in years to come.

Portrait of a Photographer employs the literary equivalent of one of Arbus’s tougher strategies for her sitters – back against the wall, with a lot of flash (showing every pore, as Germaine Greer once grumbled). Lubow evokes just how trying it must have been to spend time with Arbus and her husband, Allan, the childhood sweetheart she married in 1941. They worked together as the Diane and Allan Arbus Studio. Allan, Lubow writes, had a habit of peering at friends through a square that he made with his hands, imagining how they would look in a photograph; Diane liked to question her friends exhaustively on the most intimate details of their life. She had been with Allan from the age of 15; a weekend away or vacation came with the high risk that she would end up in bed with one of her friends’ husbands, if only out of curiosity.

The thoroughness of Lubow’s study presents biographer and reader alike with the dilemma of voyeurism. Although Arbus’s parents, two serious partners and brother are dead, her daughters (one is a journalist and the executor of her mother’s estate; the other is a photographer) have to live with her myth. What purpose can it serve to delve into every tawdry detail of her sex life, the resulting ruinous bouts of hepatitis after her marriage to Allan ended, the torturous relationship with Marvin Israel and, most disturbingly, the possibility that she and her brother, the poet Howard Nemerov, may have had a sexual relationship?

All of this makes for painful reading, but Lubow’s excavation of the private life of a great artist is nevertheless welcome, not out of prurience, but for the grenade that it chucks at the misreading of Arbus as a “supertourist”, slumming it in search of some pain to call her own. For her sitters – such as “the human pin-cushion”, “the Jewish giant at home with his parents”, or the godforsaken girl with too much eyeliner, who was once told that she had “the look of Elizabeth Taylor” – everything may well be awful, but it can be simultaneously wonderful. Arbus said she photographed “what gnaws” at her. Her gift was in making those subjects gnaw at us, too.

Olivia Cole is a poet and winner of the Eric Gregory Award in 2003

Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer by Arthur Lubow is published by Jonathan Cape (752pp, £35)

This article appears in the 03 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The closing of the liberal mind