Monday, July 04, 2016

Through Her Lens Darkly: Diane Arbus’s Life Was as Raw as Her Work


Arbus in 1971, the year of her suicide. Credit Eva Rubinstein
Portrait of a Photographer
By Arthur Lubow
Illustrated. 734 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers. US$35.
The poet Paul Valéry wrote that anyone preparing to venture into the interior of the psyche had better go armed. It’s a warning to be heeded by the biographer, especially when his subject is as difficult as the photographer Diane Arbus (1923-71). Arthur Lubow, a journalist, confronted a figure heaped in myth, an artist-­suicide whose work cannot be disentangled from the tragedy of her ­depression and death. In his 700-page ­investigation, he labored in the moonlight penumbra of those other fatal female luminaries: Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Francesca Woodman. Lubow never mentions this “tradition,” but it forms the climate of critical and, above all, popular perception of the work. Likewise the sensational appeal of the subject matter: the sideshow characters, sword swallowers, dwarves, cross-dressers, nudists, giants and — most problematic — people with severe intellectual development disorders. “Freaks” Arbus herself called them, and Lubow frequently repeats the term. The nervous-making frisson these photographs set off when they first began to appear in 1960 can still be felt. Vampire or artist, exploiter or truth teller, genius or purveyor of spectacles that play to the cheap seats: The biographer is forced to take a stand on Arbus, even today

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