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Snapshots of the Photographer

Diane Arbus: A Biography

by Patricia Bosworth
Knopf, 366 pp., $17.95

The photographer Diane Arbus—the subject of Patricia Bosworth’s new biography—was born in 1923 in New York and forty-eight years later killed herself in her apartment in an artists’ community in the same city. Her parents, David and Gertrude Nemerov, were well-to-do Jews whose fortune derived from Russeks, a fur and clothing store which Gertrude’s father had founded, and with which David was associated, first as a window dresser, then as merchandising director, and finally as president and chairman of the board. Together with her sister and her brother Howard, who was to become a well-known poet, Diane grew up in a tight, closed, snobbish world of the newly rich, in which she was alternately petted and ignored by her parents, ordered to wear white gloves by her nanny while walking in the park, and confined in an enormous, lonely apartment on Central Park West. Bosworth’s account of Arbus’s childhood is the best part of her book: she manages to convey something of the pretensions and mannerisms of the Nemerovs, and in her portrait of David Nemerov, a vain and charming, but fundamentally hard, businessman, she introduces us to a person who at times seems far more interesting than Diane Arbus.

Nemerov sent his children to progressive schools such as the Ethical Culture School and Fieldston, where they were bound to develop aspirations to do other in life than assist him at Russeks or become businessmen’s wives like Gertrude; and yet, when they did so, he complained and was not readily available for help. According to Howard Nemerov, his work was probably never read by his father. When David Nemerov retired from Russeks and took up painting as a hobby, and subsequently mounted a show and managed not only to sell most of his paintings to Seventh Avenue associates but also to earn a notice in Time magazine, he told his son (who was by this time in his late thirties), “You see? An artist can be successful at making money.” He was able to provide his children with immense opportunities, but, as with many other self-made men, the occasional pride he felt in them appears to have been always tinctured with a certain resentment and competitiveness, as well as with a reluctance to let them develop in their own way—attitudes that were almost certain to produce in them at once a lack of self-esteem and an arrogant and neurotic perfectionism. Both Diane and Howard suffered periodically from deep depressions, as did their mother, who herself had come from a background not entirely unlike theirs.

An intelligent, shy girl, Diane did not escape her parents’ world easily: unlike her brother and sister, who married gentiles, she married Allan Arbus, the nephew of David Nemerov’s predecessor as president of Russeks, who resembled her enough that they were at times confused for brother and sister. The Arbuses opened a photographic studio with Nemerov’s help—he characteristically promised at first to buy them their camera equipment and then subsequently reversed himself and ended up paying only for some of it—and photographed advertisements for Russeks; in time, they became fairly successful, and worked for such magazines as Glamour and Seventeen. The two worked well together—Allan was the photographer and Diane the “stylist,” conceiving the idea of a shooting and arranging the clothes, makeup, and accessories of the models—but both of them disliked commercial photography and wished to do other things, he to become an actor and she to pursue her interest in “serious” photography. In this she was subsequently encouraged by the photographer Lisette Model, who was known for her photographs of drunks and beggars and other “grotesques.” In 1957 the Arbuses broke up their business partnership in order to promote their separate interests and somewhat later their marriage collapsed. They remained friends, however, and Diane tried to make money from her photographs in order to help Allan support their two daughters and herself.

Although Bosworth is at pains to point out that Diane Arbus took a good many fashion photographs and portraits of celebrities in order to make money, it is her arresting photographs of unusual subjects that made her famous. She told Model that she wished to photograph what is “evil.” She photographed (or wished to photograph) child prostitutes, copulating dogs, midgets, morgues, “Sealo the Seal Boy, who had hands growing out of his shoulders,” a woman who trained herself to eat and sleep underwater, cats in fancy dress, dwarfs and giants, a man who collected string for twenty years, transvestites and hermaphrodites, hydrocephalics and retardates, “a man who said he was Joan Crawford.” Some of the safer of her photographs were published in Harper’s Bazaar when its art director was the late Marvin Israel, who in a sense replaced Allan Arbus as the dominant male influence in Arbus’s life. In 1967 the New Documents show at the Museum of Modern Art, organized by John Szarkowski, introduced her work to a wider public.

Some years before the New Documents show, however, she had fallen ill with hepatitis, which had been aggravated by a regime of antidepressants and birth control pills, and it took years for her to recover from it. In 1969, when she was divorced from Allan Arbus and he moved to California and her daughters began to lead lives of their own, she found herself alone and fearful of growing old. Her depressions grew more frequent. She complained to friends that she may have succeeded as an “artist” but still had few assignments that brought in money. She tried to put together a portfolio of her work: it sold only three copies, to friends. In 1971 she committed suicide, to which she apparently thought we all have a “right.” The following year she was the first American photographer to be exhibited at the Venice Biennale.

Bosworth explains in the preface to her book that although Arbus’s brother, sister, and mother agreed to provide information and otherwise cooperate with her in writing it, her former husband, daughters, and several others, such as Marvin Israel, refused to do so. This perhaps explains to some extent why the first part of the book, when Bosworth has at hand the reminiscences of Arbus’s family, is so interesting, whereas the latter parts are little more than a succession of details and incidents of dubious provenance, with very little of larger significance brought out. This part of the book constantly gives the impression that she is not up to her subject and neither knows enough about Arbus nor has sufficient critical equipment to help us appreciate her work.

One feels in these later sections of her book that Bosworth has simply filled in the gaps in her evidence with speculations of her own and with lurid and upsetting hearsay about Arbus—which she supplies liberally—even though the sole possible justification for telling us, for example, that Arbus was bisexual, or attended orgies, or masturbated while watching her father die in his hospital room, is the contribution such stories might make to the kind of rounded portrait she utterly fails to provide. A pall of smut hangs over the book: everything about Arbus is painted in black and gray; she emerges a midnight figure, brooding and morbid and sexually perverse, slightly absurd as she runs about asking her friends if they know any “battered people” or “freaks” she can photograph.

Bosworth also employs some questionable journalistic methods in the later parts of the book. She frequently makes statements about Arbus’s character that she fails to confirm with anything like adequate evidence. She boldly states that Diane “said” something or other, but when we turn to her footnotes we discover that the evidence that she did so is nothing more than one of her informants’ memories of an afternoon spent together or a breakfast. “Diane’s sexual fantasies,” we are told, “were dark and perverse. She once confided that she envied a girlfriend who’d been raped,” but we are never told to whom she confided this or when. Bosworth mentions other “friends” of Arbus, unnamed or furnished with pseudonyms, who seem to be nothing but mouthpieces for her own speculations.

She writes, for example, that the Arbuses permitted themselves marital infidelities and openly discussed them between themselves and their close friends. But it appears that when Allan Arbus fell in love with an actress, their marriage collapsed. Why did this happen? There is no clear answer in the book, but some light is thrown on the matter when Bosworth introduces the pseudonymous “Cheech McKensie,” who says that Diane phoned her during the critical period when the marriage was deteriorating and asked to see her. “Cheech” says that Diane met her at “the baths on Monroe Street,” where “we sat fully clothed in the steam on the stairs and there were elderly Jewish women surrounding us” while “Diane poured her heart out to me.” The burden of Diane’s confession was that while she felt her own infidelities were “unimportant,” she felt betrayed when Allan fell in love. The scene ends improbably when, in Cheech’s words, Diane “took out her camera and began snapping away at the women lolling around in their sheets,” as if “she were trying to kill them with her camera.”

This kind of anecdote is characteristic of the sloppy way in which the book has been produced. It is also full of repetitions and of ill-composed sentences such as the following: “Avedon recommended her for a lucrative advertising job to photograph a new camera in her own particular way.” Characters are mentioned many pages before we are told who they are and how they figured in Arbus’s life. Words appear in different spellings on different pages. An article on Arbus is listed on one page as having appeared in 1978 and on another in 1971. An estate is described as “shambling,” a woman has a “smelly waddle”; even Bosworth’s accounts of vivid incidents are marred by her use of words like “grungy” and “funky.”

Marvin Israel wrote about Arbus that “whatever she was and whatever she said she was, was in some sense disguised,” and the job of her biographer would seem to be to break through these disguises and try to give a coherent account of her personality, but Bosworth presents so many separate pieces of evidence that incline one to different and often opposite conclusions that after reading her book one really has no clear view of Arbus’s character at all. Bosworth seems at times to see Arbus as something of a “liberated woman” avant la lettre, who was brought up to be nothing but a wife and mother but who was driven by artistic impulses to escape the suffocating and pretentious world of her parents and to force her way into the “male club” of commercial photography, in which she was at times unjustly paid less than her male colleagues.

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