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Monday, November 21, 2016

An Exhaustive and Exhausting Biography of Diane Arbus, Photographer

Diane Arbus: Portrait of a PhotographerDiane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer by Arthur Lubow
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Groan--600 pages about a woman who in life must have been a drain on anyone she chose to attach herself to or who felt inclined to be involved with. She is the second prominent New Yorker of Russian Jewish heritage who had no problem with incest--in her case, her brother, in the case of Stella Adler, her father! Throughout her life, from the earliest days of her life it would seem, this woman for whatever reason either felt unappreciated, because of lack of praise or because what praise she received she either felt was false or not deserved. There seemed to be no pleasing her.
Although she is considered to be, in some circles, one of the earliest photographers to have helped establish photography as an art form, she constantly was insecure and for most of her life claimed to hate her work--the product as well as the application. How wearing. It was interesting to me that she never actually had a relationship she felt fulfilled by and that those, who were supposedly her greatest personal emotional support, actually had partners who were more important to them and were constants in their lives. She, on the other hand, was an intermittent tangent to their lives and in the case of the males, an occasional bedmate.It was also interesting to note that most of them lived at a significant geographical distance from her.
As her personal life is revealed one finds that she functioned in circles that had the stench and muddiness of effluence of a septic system drainage. I was living in Manhattan, though 15 years younger, as she was walking the same streets and living in the same general neighborhoods. In my youthful innocence I knew nothing of what was going on behind those facades by which I walked, thank goodness!
Though her life was revealed in some detail at times and with a great deal of analysis by the author, little really was said about her relationship to her two daughters with Allan Arbus. She married him in her teens and they started a photography studio which was primarily involved in fashion magazine layouts--other than newspaper or journalistic photography, the only sphere in which the camera and its users could make a living. She had the eye to create the layout, Allan the technical ability and interest in the actual photography. In time this would change and he would move to California with a new love and become an actor, best known as the shrink in M*A*S*H, and she would become the photographer. She focused on the demimonde of peep shows, female impersonators, freaks, side shows etc and it is mostly for these photos she became famous.

One of the major drawbacks of the book is the extensive descriptions of many of her photos without the actual photos to look at. Here too the author spends extraordinary pains to analyze the meaning of the subjects and how they related to Arbus, her inner self and her self image. It would have been nice to have the pictures to analyze for oneself and then read the author's interpretation. I did look at some of the shots after reading the book but at that point was really too exhausted to want to spend any more time on the subject. In my opinion, rather than relating to these people, whether the freaks or the upper class couples or the families or the children, I think they made her feel superior to them and therefore at least momentarily she felt better about herself. She was cruel to setting up her photos--making a small 4 year old stand at a distance in the snowy Central Park until the happy little girl dissolved in frightened, exhausted tears and gave her the photo she wanted. How nice she had that kind of power. Or the lengthy photo sessions in the yard or the living room of a family's home that wore the husbands to anger and the wives to an anxiety to keep the peace so that she could show her belief that there were cracks in the surface of their apparent serenity and happiness.
The best insight to her life, her attitudes on behavior and experience, her relationships to both friends, partners, subjects is provided by the interviews with her therapist. Interestingly, though she might have benefited early on from therapy, no one seems to have recommended it, although it seems she did find it laughable. It was her long-time liason, Marvin Israel, who like her enjoyed manipulating people who got her to go for help. He did it primarily because, though he maintained a relationship with her, he made it quite clear that he loved his wife and had no intention of relegating her to second place. When Diane became too needy and was calling him incessantly he finally pawned her off to a therapist. Not completely, of course, but at least partially. He also, in as similar an uncaring manner as she, carried on a relationship with her older daughter. Many of her friends felt that this as well as her despondency over aging and no longer looking younger than her years, as well as financial stress, as well as an ennui resulting from an inability to find something new in photography all contributed to her suicide. Yes, I should think that would do it to someone as fragile and self absorbed as she.
Lest this review seems to make the book unworthy of reading, it is important to note that I did read it, every one of the 600 pages. The thing that kept me going was the history of photography, especially as it became recognized as a creative expression as much as a document of life as it passes day to day, year to year. Also, in addition to Arbus, there were a plethora of photographers working throughout the world and their approach to the technical and artistic aspects of presentation as well as choice of subjects was as wide and varied. That part of the book was incredibly absorbing and, if truth be known, was a major reason for my interest in entering this giveaway.
So, though I knew less than nothing about Diane Arbus, other than the name of a woman who was mentioned in the newspapers I read while finishing high school and going to college , I now know more than I wanted about her and find I don't think I would have liked her very much. But, I also know more about her output, more about the people working in the field at the same time, more about how magazines worked at the time, more about how exhibits are designed at museums and more about the field of photography. There are ways I will look at the people and objects I photograph and the settings in which they are found that never occurred to me before. Lighting and distance and composition which have always been more or less instinctive will now at times, not always, be more thought out. It will be interesting to see if there is any improvement.

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