Diane Arbus: more haunting than beauty

Photo: © Allan Arbus/The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. (Screen test of Diane Arbus made by Allan Arbus in c. 1949)

Prompted by incidental TV watching during Winter Break, I went on a search for biographies of Diane Arbus, and discovered two — Patricia Bosworth’s Diane Arbus: A Biography,  and William Todd Schultz’s,  An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus.  I got caught up in a movie about Diane Arbus that, fantastical as it was, made me want to know more about the real person behind the surreal depiction.  After Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus ended, I googled compulsively on my couch.  I knew nothing about Arbus, but was intrigued by the suggestion that she was driven by personal demons and unquenchable desires to capture the sometimes disturbing images of humanity that filled her photographs. Fur also revealed a woman who experimented sexually at a time when women, particularly of her social class, were enclosed and repressed by the dictates of propriety.  Fur’s fantastical and fictional vision of Arbus’s sexuality revealed only a small fraction, it seems, of her inner compulsions, demons, motives, and genius.

The reviews of the film roundly criticized the fictionalization of a woman who, in reality, was intriguing, complex, and brilliant. Most critics suggested that the film merely served to eroticize Arbus while failing to investigate Arbus’ motives, artistic photographic breakthroughs, and life’s work. Patricia Bosworth’s 1984 biography of Arbus contains very few photographs, and because the Arbus family would not agree wholeheartedly to work with the writer, Bosworth relied upon friends and more distant relatives to paint a picture of Arbus’s life. Bosworth’s biography is hefty and detailed, so much so that wading through the dense description and anecdotes took me weeks.  Even so,  Bosworth leaves the real work of understanding Arbus far from complete. Bosworth notes that Diane’s daughter, Doon,  wanted her mother’s work to speak for itself, to be interpreted by the viewer rather than intellectualized and psychologized by critics and academics.

Bosworth’s book is densely packed with stories and conjecture about Arubs, and  Bosworth seems to want to reveal as many details as possible to support her enduring thread — that of Arbus’s compulsion to photograph, and the desperate need for connection with her subjects that drove her.  Bosworth suggests that Arbus’s personal and photographic relationships were highly sexualized (and in fact, that Arbus engaged in sex with strangers often in order to both “experience” something and to quell her isolation and loneliness). While Bosworth spends time chronicling Arbus’s sexual encounters, she seems reticent to hypothesize about the motives for Arbus’s actions. Bosworth, like all who study Arbus, notes Diane’s intense connection to “freaks,” and perhaps we are to understand Arbus’s sexuality in this context of experience that pushes the boundaries of conventional behavior. Certainly, there is a suggestion that Arubs used her sexual connections to deepen her relationship with her photographic subjects, urging them to reveal themselves to her in the startling images of  her portraits.

Bosworth’s biography, in its plodding inclusion of detail and story after story, is admirable in its scope, but it left me with a partial understanding of the woman, Diane Arbus.  Arbus seems, even after Bosworth’s meticulous research, beyond the reach of observers of her art and life. She seems locked in a room full of secrets and hidden motives.

A newer biography, William Todd Schultz’s An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus, drastically trims the anecdotal stories about Arbus, and focuses its investigation upon a psychological excavation of Arbus’s inner life — and the extrinsic motives that drove her decisions. Schultz’s book draws upon new sources, but also upon Bosworth’s seminal study, in order to make the argument that Arbus’s images, in their shocking depravity, parallel Arbus’s own inner life.  Schultz argues that Arbus’s photographs reveal much more about her, the artist, than they reveal about the subject in the image.  Arbus’s focus on “freaks,” for example, suggests that Arbus identified with, and saw herself as, an outcast, someone searching for acceptance and love, who, simultaneously, rejected the secrets hidden beneath the facade of her family’s wealth and social prominence.

Schultz’s painting of Arbus’s inner life, based upon family records, Arbus’s own writings, and information from Arbus’s therapist, reveals her as a complex and deeply hurt woman.  Though Schultz seems to suggest that Diane Arbus coped with her lack of attachment through her work as a photographer, he also frames Diane as a victim of her family’s wealth and position, a victim also of the failure of society to provide women with adequate options for fulfillment. Finally, Schultz connects Arbus’s attachment problems with her depression in order to explain, in part, her suicide, which he frames as an ironic success.

Schultz maintains that Arbus’s depression and her quest for adequate attachment objects was deeply interwoven with her art.  Schultz notes that while art can often be therapeutic and cathartic, in Arbus’s case (and in Sylvia Plath’s) the art predicts, perhaps even invites, the ultimate act of suicide. This kind of art, with its insistence upon reliving the trauma continually, seems to reinforce the descent into darkness for some artists.  While Schultz notes that Arbus’s art was central to her, he also suggests that her break with her husband, her lover and mentor Marvin Israel, and her dissatisfaction with her last photographic project, tossed her into a sea of uncertainty.

Her suicide, he suggests, was not planned, not really even intended to work as a suicide.  Rather, he thinks it was a spontaneous gesture, a call for help that succeeded when it was meant to fail. He notes that Arbus felt that her art must go on, that it had an insistence and meaning all its own, and without her, it could not. In Arbus’s own words, she uncannily revealed Schultz’s thesis: “Something is ironic in the world and it has to do with the fact that what you intend never comes out like you intended it” (.diane arbus. 2).

A few of Arbus’s photographs were published shortly after her death in a book titled simply .diane arbus. I’ve spent a few days looking at the photographs, trying to understand more about Arbus through her art. What seems evident is her need to reveal what we don’t want to see in ourselves, to reveal our darkest and hidden selves.  A few of Arbus’s words, mostly from recordings of lessons she taught to photography students, accompanies the images. Arbus notes, “I really believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them.” (15). Arbus’s genius was not in producing beautiful photographs, but in producing shocking, moving, disturbing photographs that reveal something more haunting than beauty beneath the surface.

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3 Responses to Diane Arbus: more haunting than beauty

  1. Thank you! –William Todd Schultz

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