Diane Arbus: Alive Again

By Edward J. Osowski

In a period only slightly longer than a decade from the late 1950s to her death in 1971, Diane Arbus produced a body of work individual photographs and group essays that summarize the nervous, alienated, irrational posses we now realize define America at mid-passage in the 20th century. That many of her images shocked us then with their directness and severity, with their “apocalyptic” overtones as one colleague has suggested, is no surprise. What is a surprise, however, is how many of these same photographs continue to demand our attention now, to engage us on two levels the emotional and the intellectual and attest to Arbus’ ability to move beyond the poses and restraints of her time.

The 1967 exhibition New Documents at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, included, in a room by themselves, thirty photographs by Arbus. Her biographer, Patricia Bosworth, describes Arbus’ participation in this exhibition as “probably the high point of Diane’s life.” In interviews and critical pieces that year the name Diane Arbus became a media commodity. In 1984, with Diane Arbus: A Biography by Bosworth and Diane Arbus: Magazine Work, a publication by Aperture and an exhibition circulated by Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas (to which Arbus’ Esquire photographs have been donated), Arbus again becomes a figure for study. Bosworth’s book appeared briefly on the “Bestseller List” of the New York Times certainly not a place where one would expect to find a work dealing with an American artist. More surprisingly, film rights to the book were recently sold. That David Bowie, the rock singer, kept the book by his bed for night reading this summer, as he told an interviewer form Vanity Fair, proves beyond a doubt that Arbus is “in” right now.

What draws us to Arbus now and what was behind her particular vision? What was it that led her to photograph certain thematic groups “eccentrics” (her term), families, celebrities? One turns to Bosworth’s Diane Arbus hoping that these, and other questions, will be answered. But Bosworth’s work suffers from an excess of information and a failure to organize this information into any coherent pattern.

The reason for this Boswellian documentation may be quiet simple. Arbus’ two daughters Doon and Amy, her ex-husband, Allen, and her close friend, Richard Avedon, all refused to cooperate with Bosworth. Doon Arbus, in fact, insisted that “the work speaks for itself,” and denied permission to reprint any of Arbus’ photographs. Bosworth, thus could not write an insiders view or a critical study. Bosworth attempted to compensate for those refusals by securing the assistance of a huge group of people, including Arbus’ brother (poet Howard Nemerov), her sister and mother, as well as colleagues and mentors (John Szarkowski and Lisette Model), classmates, baby sitter, neighbors, models, and students. The number of “voices” Bosworth quotes is truly staggering and one can only guess at the work involved in tracking down some of her sources.

Born in 1923 to a wealthy family, Arbus was raised as a “Jewish princess,” one friend confided to Bosworth, but romantically and defiantly threw over the comfortable life her parents wanted for her when she married Allen Arbus in 1941. With her husband she formed a team of fashion photographers who were much sought after in the 1950s by magazines like Seventeen and Glamour. She grew disenchanted with this fashion work and, as her marriage failed, evolved into a creative artist.

While Diane Arbus: A Biography is filled with all kinds of information, it presents a tone, disguised as “neutral,” in which any single detail is no more important than any other. So we learn that Arbus was fascinated by her body smells and menstrual cycles; that, as a student riding to school on the subway, she forced herself to stare at the men who exposed themselves to her; that the apartment she and Allen Arbus Shared was almost totally white; that she consumed her last meal (a roast chicken) with friends “ravenously;” that as a teenager, she used to stand on the ledge outside the living room windows of her parents apartment and dare fate, enjoying the thrill of knowing how close she was to danger. That Arbus lived constantly on the edge that “terror” filled her life, and that she was drawn to “the perverse, the alienated, the extreme” precisely because she was this herself are conclusions Bosworth leads us to but draws back from making herself.

If we grant Bosworth the creative freedom to include and details she wishes, then the neutrality of her tone might be acceptable. Not so neutral, however, is the manner in which Bosworth describes Arbus’ death by suicide in July 1971. It is Arbus; death that establishes her as a cultural icon, that makes her a Vincent Van Gogh for our times, that joins her with other famous dead from the 1960s and 1970s Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Anne Sexton. This is how Bosworth voyeuristically describes the scene of Arbus’ suicide:

He found Diane dead, her wrists slit, lying on her side in the empty bathtub. She was dressed in pants and shirt her body was already “in a state of decomposition.” On her desk her journal was open to July 26, and across it was scrawled “The last supper.”

No other message was found, although Lisette Model claimed to have received a note but refused to divulge its contents. There is also a rumor that Diane had set up her camera and tripod as she lay dying. However, when the police and coroner arrived, there was no evidence of camera or film.

Notice how easily Bosworth slides from “fact to “rumor,” how she panders to certain extreme tastes, how she makes it possible for us to believe that Marvin lsrael, who found the body but refused to talk to Bosworth, may have confiscated film before the police arrived. And what are we to make of the note Lisette Model supposedly possesses? Bosworth, in her effort to tell all, leads us to conclude that Model, who cooperated with Bosworth and whose influence on Arbus is ably considered, is somehow denying us access to the “truth.”

That there is no “truth” to Arbus’ life is the only conclusion one can draw from Bosworth’s book. Doon Arbus recognizes this fact. The foreword she co-wrote with Marvin Israel to Diane Arbus: Magazine Work assigns Bosworth’s book to the land of the never-conceived. Doon Arbus was well aware that Bosworth’s book was about to be published when she wrote, “In the twelve years since its publication, the Aperture monograph Diane Arbus has remained the foundation for all critical and popular assessments of her life and work.”

The success of any biography of a creative person can be judged, finally, by whether we return to the works of the artist to consider them anew. On these terms Bosworth has succeeded. One turns to Diane Arbus: Magazine Work and to Diane Arbus, the earlier publication, not for clues or for signs that suggest that the photographer would eventually kill herself. (Bosworth refers to the period when Arbus’ creative period reigned as the “Dark World” and tracks down individuals who recognize now, through hindsight, that two or three years before her death Arbus was heading in that direction.) Instead, one looks at Arbus’ photographs to appreciate her “style,” found in her sense of the unexpected, of the incongruous. How oddly “domestic” are the nudists she photographs, for example. Yet visiting a nudist camp was, for her, “like walking into an hallucination without quite being sure whose it is,” she wrote.

When she fails, it is either because her “vision” is limited by her subject or because her moral/cultural superiority gets in the way. The demands of making a living explain some of her subjects the groups of children modeling clothes or the famous (Mae West, Charles Atlas, Jacqueline Susann, Marguerite Oswald) which appeared in Magazines like Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire, and Sports Illustrated. In many of these one is struck by the fact that Arbus has nothing fresh or original to offer.

What one senses repeatedly in Arbus’ photographs is how she distanced herself from her subjects. The quick snapshot style that she cultivated resulted in rolls of film being shot and, perhaps, one image that could be printed. Several times Bosworth refers to Arbus’ style as “unjudgmental” and states that her photographs examine, but do not interpret, the world. A less accurate description could not be found. For the photograph “Jacqueline Susann: The Writing Machine” she posed Susann and her husband Irving Mansfield in bathing suites. Susann, her hair glamorously shaped, shows a lot of leg and not much writing talent as she sits in her husband’s lap. A television console is to their left and a sofa, on their right, enters the viewer’s space. Rococo drapes behind them suggests that this is the setting for grand events. Bosworth would have us believe that this means nothing. But in Mansfield’s description of the session with Arbus, he makes it clear that, after wooing and courting them, Arbus wore the couple down with her nagging, cajoling, and unrelenting probes. It is clear that she intends for this couple to be held up for our criticism and contempt. That her approach was to assault, that her subjects frequently felt tyrannized by Arbus, emerges from interviews with Clay Felker, Viva, Germaine Greer, and others.

Arbus found magazine work attractive (in 1967, for example, she earned $5,000 for one two-week assignment for the New York Times) but also limiting. Thomas Southhall’s excellent essay in Diane Arbus: Magazine Work charts the ups and downs of her career in this genre. Editors refused to print works she prized and gave her assignments which failed to interest her but which she took because she needed the money. That her style was not always unique becomes apparent in the new Aperture collection. We see her paying homage to or imitating Walker Evans, Richard Avedon, and Duane Michals, among others. Arbus longed to have the freedom to publish extended essays like Robert Frank’s The Americans and several examples are included in the new collection.

Where Arbus remains successful is in capturing the secret territory in which dreams turn into nightmares, where innocence is tinged with corruption, where those who most need protection are most open to attack. An interest in fashion photography drew me repeatedly to Arbus’ essay on Children’s clothing for The New York Times and Harper’s Bazaar. Her vision is almost Wordsworthian these children are the carriers of innocence. But they are troubled also. Like “Identical Twins” from the earlier publication, something is wrong, askew. A child bites her fingers, another stares out blankly, a third runs toward the camera, her hair and dress disheveled.

In pictures concerning the family, Arbus expresses her worst fears of the tyranny of the normal. Look at “A Woman with Her Baby Monkey,” “Triplets in Their Bedroom,” and “Jewish Giant” (from the earlier publication) or “A Young Brooklyn Family” and “A Family on Their Lawn” (in both publications) to appreciate Arbus’ fears and sense of “what if.” Something is wrong, she is telling us, and there is no comfort to be found in the family institution, which is supposed to offer us protection from a cruel world.

Diane Arbus’ most successful subjects are heavy with meaning, stand up under close examination, and express her feelings as well as ours. That she chose subjects in extremis or pushed pliant subjects into dire or revealing situations, was part of her effort to get at meanings beneath the surface. She wrote this to accompany her group of photographs The Full Circle: “These are five singular people who appear like metaphors somewhere further out than we do, beckoned, not driven, invented by belief, author and hero of a real dream by which our own courage and cunning are tested and tried; so that we may wonder all over again what is verifiable and inevitable and possible and what it is to become whoever we may be.”