Navigate to Arts & Letters section

The Other Arbus

Photographer Diane Arbus was an accomplished artist and a troubled person. Two recent books disagree on the extent to which one led to the other.

Sabine Heinlein
November 14, 2011
Original photo: Wikipedia
Diane ArbusOriginal photo: Wikipedia
Original photo: Wikipedia
Diane ArbusOriginal photo: Wikipedia

Diane Arbus sounded giddy, recalling her visit to the projects on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. At the School of Visual Arts in New York last month, the Aperture Foundation was playing a compilation of 1970s audio recordings of the photographer talking about her work at an event dubbed “A Slide Show and Talk by Diane Arbus.” The apartment buildings looked like any other public housing complex in New York, Arbus said, but behind the apartment doors was an unknown world. She found her time with the midgets there “terrific,” she said. (The soundtrack to the slide show is the only original recording of Arbus that exists; it was drawn from an ICP lecture, a class talk at the Westbeth Artist Community and an interview by Studs Terkel for his book Hard Times.)

Arbus giggled. Her voice was loud and clear yet sweet and spontaneous. She talked fast, following her mind’s rapid turns and twists, and suddenly stalled, in awe of her characters. “Oh, and that’s just a family in Brooklyn,” she said. Pointing to the Ideal Marriage book on the shelf to the husband’s right in the photo, she added, “You could tell it didn’t work very well.” More giggles. A few minutes later she recounted her experience of walking around naked at a nudist camp. “I wish I could slip into something comfortable,” she said she’d thought. Her audience roared in the background. Arbus comes across as naïve yet aware of her photographs’ tragic dimensions, their blind spots and their absurdity.

Arbus, who committed suicide in 1971 at the age of 48, photographed people in society’s margins. She was always on the lookout, excavating hidden narratives in unusual places: at nudist camps and diaper derbies, in circuses, freak shows, and mental institutions. Arbus was an adventurer. She wanted to go where no one else went, and her camera gave her the license to do so. Marvin Israel, her close friend and an artist, said her photographs were only trophies.

Two new books attempt to portray Arbus’ life. Diane Arbus: A Chronology was co-authored by Arbus’ older daughter, Doon, and Elisabeth Sussman, a photography curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The charming paperback edition features a selection of correspondence and excerpts from personal notebooks as well as two childhood “autobiographies” (first published as part of the catalog to the traveling Arbus retrospective “Revelations,” which was on view from 2003 to 2006). A Chronology also contains 55 biographies of Arbus’ family members, friends, and colleagues, from Marvin Israel and Lisette Model to August Sander and Richard Avedon.

“This is the closest thing you can find to a Diane Arbus autobiography,” Lesley Martin, Aperture’s publisher, said recently at an event introducing the volume at the School of Visual Arts. The book’s eclectic assemblage, its circumspect selection of material, and its simple and elegant design pay tribute to a complex woman. But Arbus was much more than one could fit onto 192 pages: She was funny, intelligent, tragic, anxious, knowledgeable, naïve, adventurous, self-conscious, frivolous, independent, and depressed. She was aware of the larger artistic context she worked within, understood irony and metaphor, and knew that her public exposure of marginalized people was, in her own words, “two-faced.”

Arbus came from a wealthy Jewish family and grew up sheltered from the ravages of the Great Depression. She craved adversity and was drawn to differences and oppositions. Her work is voyeuristic and morally complex. As an artist she interacted with her subjects: They posed for her, and she posed for them. (In fact, her subjects seem to remember almost as many stories about her as she did about them.) Her sitters look directly at her camera, and we are forced to confront their gaze. For Arbus, getting to know “the other” was a learning experience greater than getting to know herself. “Knowing yourself is not going to teach you anything,” she once said. “It’ll leave you with a kind of blank.”

Arbus’ daughter Doon, who manages her mother’s estate, wrote that she chose to release the autobiographical material hoping it would “render the scrim of words invisible so that anyone encountering the photographs could meet them in the eloquence of their silence.” But words and images invite discourse, leading to William Todd Schultz’s recent psychobiography: An Emergency in Slow Motion—The Inner Life of Diane Arbus.

This book “superimposes” the artist’s real and alleged psychological conflicts onto her work. Schultz argues that Arbus’ obsession with secrets calls for a psychological approach because the pictures are her “internal world externalized.”

Right off the bat he sounds mad at the Arbus estate, which he calls “famously closefisted, notoriously obstreperous if not outright adversarial.” Clearly he didn’t get the access to Arbus’ material he had hoped for. His original material is sparse; most of his footnotes refer to Patricia Bosworth’s awkward 1984 biography, Diane Arbus, and to the estate’s Revelations, in which Arbus’ chronology originally appeared.

Given Doon Arbus’ wish for privacy and respect, and the amount of care with which she selected the material for A Chronology, Schultz’s psychobiography feels ham-fisted. To him, Arbus’ art is little more than a symptom of her pathological disorders. Schultz alleges that Arbus’ parents’ rejected her and that she had incestuous relations with her brother Howard. Arbus was subjected to negative emotions and developed an “insecure/anxious attachment style.” Schultz believes that “her shots mimicked her own interior” and that her “queer, perverse pictures of freaks signified a queer, perverse household.” Arbus was forced to isolate the good from the bad to keep negative emotions at bay. Schultz attributes her common themes of “splitting” and “integration”—in her pictures of twins and triplets, for example—to her psychological malaise. He describes how Arbus clung to her subjects (and to her therapist) to defend herself from separation and loss. These unequal relationships, says Schultz, allowed Arbus “to exert some control over her fraught emotional experience, always tenuously managed at best.” Her sitters were a projection of her own inner torment, her work a “private version of exposure therapy.”

This exposure therapy stopped working when Arbus began “Untitled,” her photo series of the mentally retarded, which she produced from 1966 to 1971. These were people beyond manipulation, Schultz writes, who did not absorb Arbus’ negativities as well as her previous subjects had. “Arbus was left with a lonely, empty feeling. She was thrown back on the one thing that remained—herself.”

Arbus’ work was not “restitutive” and didn’t allow her to work through the trauma, Schultz writes. “Does her work prove her madness?” he asks mysteriously. “Did her work hasten her demise?” In other words, did photographing masked, retarded people drive Arbus to commit suicide?

I found Schultz’s poetic language seductive, but I got lost in the tangents that crisscross the book’s 256 pages like spider webs. Schultz’s sign-pointing—“Later I explore in detail,” “It’s a scene I return to later”—does not stop the book from being disorienting.

With one exception, An Emergency contains little original reporting: Schultz, who teaches psychology at Pacific University in Oregon, prides himself on having gained access to Helen Boigon, the therapist who treated Arbus in the years preceding her suicide. Boigon, who died a few years ago, revealed information that was never supposed to leave the treatment room, a troubling ethical violation, as the patient’s right to confidentiality continues after death.

Ethics aside, most of Boigon’s information is vacuous: Arbus never talked about her family; she never discussed her art in therapy; she was searching for “experience” and, in Boigon’s recollection, “feeling bad.” Schultz stretches out the little he got from Boigon to ridiculous lengths; he even somehow manages to discuss Boigon donating her husband’s organs to the hospital in which he died. Schultz did uncover one juicy detail: According to Boigon, Arbus came on to her during therapy, “with a somewhat slimy expression on her face.”

To speculate that Diane Arbus killed herself because retarded people couldn’t respond to her like her other subjects did is preposterous. Most people who commit suicide do so because they are depressed and their judgment is impaired. Arbus had suffered from bouts of depression for years. “And it is so goddamn chemical, I’m convinced,” she wrote in a letter to her friend Carlotta Marshall in 1968, three years before she killed herself. “Energy, some special kind of energy just leaks out and I am left lacking the confidence even to cross the street.”

An artist is not simply a puppet of her emotional state. One does not just click the shutter button (or pick up a pen) and deliver a portrait of one’s soul. Arbus did have an emotionally ambivalent childhood. But she also had a first-class education, a familiarity with psychoanalytic theory and Greek myths, and a clear knowledge of historical and contemporary currents in art and literature. Diane Arbus was conscious, selective, and aware of her power over her subjects. She made people pose for her and prodded them. (The grimace of the boy with the hand grenade was a result of her exasperating him, she said in the 1970s slide presentation.) Arbus took an active part in her art and edited her work heavily. She didn’t just capture reality; she created it. Out of a slew of photographs, she carefully selected the one that had all the elements she wanted.

I’m not opposed to stories about artists and writers’ lives. I like them, but Arbus’ art is much greater than a troubled woman’s psyche; it stands powerfully on its own. Her photographs cannot be reduced to a symptom or any real or imagined private pathology. “A photograph is a secret about a secret,” she once said. “The more it tells you, the less you know.”

Sabine Heinlein is the author of the IPPY Gold Award-winning narrative nonfiction book Among Murderers: Life After Prison and the ebook The Orphan Zoo: Rise and Fall of the Farm at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center. She is a recipient of the Pushcart Prize.

Sabine Heinlein is the author of the IPPY Gold Award-winning narrative nonfiction book Among Murderers: Life After Prison and the ebook The Orphan Zoo: Rise and Fall of the Farm at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center. She is a recipient of the Pushcart Prize.