Diane Arbus, Adventurer

Camera-obscura-...-Diane--007I read the Patricia Bosworth biography of Diane Arbus, originally published in 1984, only a little over a decade after her death, but reissued and, I believe, the basis for the 2006 film Fur: an Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, which stars a horribly mis-cast Nicole Kidman (!!) and which looks awful.

The biography is not perfect — somehow I felt the truth of who Arbus was, what she felt and thought, remained to some degree elusive or hidden from Bosworth and the reader — but I found it very gripping.

I had never known that Arbus was born Diane Nemerov and was the sister of famous poet (twice poet laureate, winner of Pulitzer, National Book Award, and Bollinger prizes) Howard Nemerov!  Quite the talented-sibling duo.  Howard is quoted late in the book saying that Diane once commented to him, “You know, I’m going to be remembered for being Howard Nemerov’s sisrer;” “how ironic and untrue,” he observed to Bosworth. (Although I think Nemerov’s own fame emerged more fully after the book was first published.)  They were cosseted children of privilege, of immigrant Jewish parents, in a rarefied Upper West Side Manhattan world, their father a wealthy founder of the Russek’s department store on Fifth Avenue (Diane grew up to hate shopping for clothes); attended the elite Fieldston prep school where they were both recognized as very talented.  Yet oddly, Diane and Howard’s parents gave them very little if any money as adults, and both of them had to scrape and scheme to support themselves in their early adulthood.

I was thinking about some other famous later 20th-c American poets whose fathers were very wealthy industrialists or financiers. James Merrill, son of Charles Merrill, co-founder of Merrill-Lynch; Louise Glück, daughter of the inventor of the X-Acto knife.  I went to a private high school in Boston founded by another son of Charles Merrill, and I always found it funny to think that the Merrill money alternately funded a school and a poetry career.  Economic capital –> Aesthetic/cultural capital.

Diane married Allan Arbus as a teenager and they became a successful fashion-photography duo in the 1940s and 1950s.  People comment that the two of them were often in a corner consulting about a shot, whispering conspiratorially.  There’s an amazing reproduction of an image from a 1947 feature article in Glamour on “case histories of seven married couples who are collaborating on joint careers in the arts, the sciences, and business” that shows a prim-looking Diane in a long dark dress feeding their young daughter Doon.  They both eventually became disenchanted by the fashion world– after their divorce, Allan eventually became a successful actor, starring as Maj. Sidney Freedman on M.A.S.H. (!- this actually does not come up in the biography).

One limitation of the book is that it does not reproduce a single Arbus photograph.  I know them pretty well, but if you didn’t, you’d definitely want to read the biography with one of her collections in hand.  I am going to try to get hold of the 2003 catalogue Diane Arbus Revelations because I really only know the famous images from the 1972 Aperture monograph.

Even after reading the biography, I can’t quite decide what I think about the question of the degree to which the ways her photography sensationalizes and (cruelly?) exoticizes its subjects.  One of her mentors, Marvin Israel, says:

A photograph for Diane was an event.  It could be argued that for Diane the most valuable thing wasn’t the photograph (the result), it was the experience, the event… Once she became an adventurer — because Diana really was an adventurer — she went places no one else [no photographer] had ever gone to.  [Those] places were scary… But once [she] became an adventurer [she was] geared to adventure and she sought out adventure and her life was based on that… the photograph was like her trophy– it was what she received as an award for her adventure.

It would be difficult to defend the work on purely aesthetic grounds.  She was “adventuring,” pushing herself to enter into forbidden, strange, exotic zones– that sense of symbolic boundary-crossing was fundamental to the images. And a critique can certainly be fairly made of the ways different kinds of social marginality (e.g. ethnic, economic, disability-based) get conflated into what can seem like one big category of the non-normative. On the other hand, she was no slumming tourist, dropping in to get the photo and then going back to her upper-middle-class world.  She returned again and again, obsessively, to many of her subjects.  The famous photo of the “Jewish giant” with his parents came out of over years of visiting and photographing him: “from 1962 to 1970 she kept returning to the Carmels’ cramped apartment until she finally captured the image she wanted.”  And she became a regular at the Coney Island sideshows and Hubert’s Freak Museum, far beyond what could have been needed to get the photos, and got to know many of the performers very well (“the living skeleton, the embalmed whale, the ventriloquist with his two-headed cat”) and considered some of them friends.

Later, in the 1960s after her divorce, this “adventuring” transitioned into sexual adventures, sometimes of a pretty seamy variety:

Sex was the quickest, most primitive way to begin connecting with another human being, and the raunchier and grosser the person or environment, the more intense the experience, and this enlarged her life… She… described in a particularly detached way how one night she’d had sex in the back of a Greyhound bus (“If you sit on the inside back seat of a Greyhound bus, it means you’re sexually available.” [ed. note: good to know!)  No introductions were made, not a word was spoken, and after this swift, mute encounter in the dark, she got off on the next stop and waited on the highway for an hour or so until another bus came along which would bring her back to New York. … It was almost as if she was determined to explore with her body and her mind every nightmare, every fantasy, she might have repressed deep into her subconscious…. Crookson listened as she told him of picking up a Puerto Rican boy on Third Avenue “because he was so beautiful.”… At this point Crookson interrupted to ask her if she hadn’t ever faced actual danger as a result of such recklessness.  Yes, she answered, but she’d always been “thrilled” to take risks to “test” herself- and besides, nothing bad had ever happened to her and for some strange reasons she was positive it never would…. [W]hen her camera was with her she always felt in control….. It seemed as if merging with her subjects… was a way of giving herself to them after they revealed themselves to her camera.

Many comment that Arbus carried her often-bulky cameras and other equipment in front of her like a shield– even when she photographed at orgies (these images have apparently never surfaced).  I was surprised that there is not a single reference to her ever getting mugged or having her camera stolen, given all the stories about her wandering about Central Park in the middle of the night or the like.

To me probably the most haunting images are the late ones taken at the institution for mentally-disabled patients in Vineland, New Jersey:


Arbus’s Guggenheim proposal (she won it): “While we regret that the present is not like the past and despair of its ever becoming the future,  its innumerable inscrutable habits lie in wait for their meaning.”

2 thoughts on “Diane Arbus, Adventurer”

  1. Excellent writing ! I am thankful for the details . Does someone know where my business can access a fillable a form form to work with ?

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