Diane Arbus, not long before her suicide.
Diane Arbus, not long before her suicide. Photograph by Eva Rubinstein

Sponsored

We absolutely have to talk about Diane Arbus.

She is one of the most difficult photographers of all time, and one of the most hotly debated. At the time Arbus was alive—1923 to 1971—photography was barely recognized as an art form. She set one course for what it could do. Susan Sontag called her cruel. Arbus would only admit that the camera is already cruel. Arbus's work gives me the shivers. I am guilty, I'm taken in, I'm repulsed. Most of all, I'm restless.

Too often we talk about Arbus in tragic terms, in terms of her suicide in 1971, assuming that "people who commit suicide are all sensibility and no intellect," said the author of a new biography of Arbus, New York Times writer Arthur Lubow. As seen in her own writing, Arbus's mind was staggering. Lubow and I will talk about Arbus and his new book tomorrow night at Elliott Bay Book Company. You should come.

Who should be asked for consent when a child is being photographed? The parents? The child? The child in the future, as an adult? Lubow visited a child Arbus photographed, with fascinating results.
Who should be asked for consent when a child is being photographed? The parents? The child? The child in the future, as an adult? Lubow visited a child Arbus photographed, with fascinating results. Photo by Tod Papageorge

Arbus photographs are devastating often because she interacted in highly charged, even erotic ways with her subjects.

When you look at the pictures, the subjects look back at you as if you were Arbus, Lubow argues. And who was Diane Arbus? (Her mother named her with the pronouncement "dee-ann.")

Who knows what she said to her subjects, what she did with them, what she thought of them, whether she slept with them. A biography is as close as we can get* to the great photographer of entanglement; suddenly your limbs are her limbs, tangling with her subjects. Did they consent? Do you consent? To what, exactly?

I know much more about Arbus after reading Lubow's hefty volume, but I still do not know how to answer those questions. Arbus was a singular artist and woman, and in addition, she was not well. It seems to me that Lubow wants to bring compassion to the way we see Arbus. It works, mostly. But his portrait of her is nothing like her chilling, startling depictions of her own subjects, which sometimes feel truthful, sometimes callous.

Lubow knocked around inside the mystery of Arbus for the better part of a decade. I talked to him this morning by phone, and he seems largely unscathed.

The book left me in a crater, as Arbus books and photographs always do. But what a crater to look around in.

Lubow didn't have the cooperation of the famously noncooperative Arbus estate. The result is that none of Arbus's own photographs are included in the book. It's a bizarre (maybe symbolic?) emptiness at the center of a book about photography. I searched the internet constantly while reading, trying to track down image by image.

Take Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. from 1962. Lubow went to visit that boy. Arbus saw in the boy something he thought he'd hidden.

Or take A family on their lawn one Sunday in Westchester, N.Y. from 1968. Lubow tells a full story of what happened when Arbus traipsed out to the suburbs. (Other memorable passages include her visits to a nudist colony.)

For me, there's no story that can quite describe or explain the photograph A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, N.Y.C., from 1966.

Support The Stranger

Over the 700 pages of his book, Lubow builds an argument that Arbus is a collaborative photographer, that she works with her subjects to represent them. I'll ask him about that tomorrow night, about consent and cruelty, and about what he thinks of her lingering effect on photographers today. You can ask questions. We may even pass around a book of her images; they're shown rarely, especially on the West Coast, yet they loom large.

Diane Arbus at work.
Diane Arbus at work. Photo by Tod Papageorge

*A shorter biography of Arbus by Patricia Bosworth came out in 2006.