Diane Arbus
Diane Arbus; drawing by David Levine

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.

Despite her tiny, frail appearance, Bosworth suggests, Arbus could be tough and competitive; she worked hard to get ahead, and occasionally used dishonest methods to do so. Thus, although Bosworth says in one place that Arbus was worried about obtaining releases from her subjects “since it touched on a photographer’s moral responsibility” and quotes her defending herself against the charge that her pictures are cruel by claiming that her subjects “wanted to have their pictures taken,” she also shows us that Arbus lied in order to get some of her photographs, assuring her subjects that her pictures were for her portfolio only and then publishing them. She quotes Arbus’s sister as saying that Diane took photographs she knew were “sensationalistic. She said she’d taken them that way deliberately. She was determined to make more money so Allan wouldn’t have to give her so much—she thought notorious pictures were one way of getting more assignments.”

Several of Arbus’s subjects are reported by Bosworth as claiming that she would ask them to pose for her and would then wait and wait until their pose fell away and they looked strained and uncomfortable, at which time she would suddenly snap their picture. Even one of her offbeat subjects could tell what she was up to: “Cora Pratt,” a New England woman who occasionally dressed up in dreadful clothes and wore enormous false teeth, and who in doing so assumed the personality of a blundering, nutty practical joker, told Bosworth that “Diane Arbus was awful nice to me, Sweet…. But before she left she asked me a couple of times was I really sincere about having these two people inside myself? I kept telling her I was sincere, but I guess she didn’t believe me because I didn’t end up at her show in the Museum of Modern Art.”

One curious episode in Bosworth’s book concerns the author Germaine Greer, who had been on a book tour in New York in 1971 and who consented to be photographed in her hotel room by Arbus. Her initial impression of Arbus, she told Bosworth, was that of “a delicate little girl,” but “all of a sudden she knelt on the bed and hung over me with this wide-angle lens staring me in the face…. It developed into a sort of duel between us, because I resisted being photographed like that—close up with all my pores and lines showing! She kept asking me all sorts of personal questions, and I became aware that she would only shoot when my face was showing tension or concern or boredom or annoyance…but because she was a woman I didn’t tell her to fuck off. If she’d been a man, I’d have kicked her in the balls.”

On the other hand, Bosworth also says that Arbus was certainly not a feminist and was somewhat contemptuous of feminists; she told a reporter that “a woman spends the first block of her life looking for a husband and learning to be a wife and mother,” and she felt, according to Bosworth, “an aching sense of worthlessness” after her husband’s departure. Moreover, says Bosworth, “she knew she had an advantage on the job in the company of men. In the beginning she was ignored, but even after she got better known she could still get away with a lot of things a man couldn’t. She’d appear insecure about her equipment; she couldn’t always load film into a camera; she’d flirt. ‘I’d stop at nothing to get the picture I wanted,’ she told one of her students…. ‘And being a woman helped.”‘ Unjust social arrangements seem to have had little to do with Arbus’s success or failure as a photographer, especially since, as Bosworth says, “by 1970—liberated by the Pill, feminism, and federal funding—women artists in general were starting to be self-supporting” and Arbus deliberately chose a “different route” from that of other women artists, creating “detached and impenetrable” work and refusing to be called a “woman artist.”

Bosworth does not make much effort to explain these conflicting aspects of Arbus’s character. More seriously, her midnight view of her subject, with its focus on masturbation and orgies, leaves out or underemphasizes what seem to me important features. While it is perhaps absurd to speculate too much about her character in light of Israel’s words, mentioned earlier, it seems that Arbus thought of herself as set apart from society at large by special gifts. From her own words and those of her close colleagues, we know that she saw her photography as part of the wider ambition of acquiring courage and self-knowledge: by entering the worlds of her oddities and photographing them she felt she challenged the fears she had acquired in her protected childhood. Tracking, pursuing, and pinning down her peculiar subjects evidently thrilled her and were seen by her as a part of a daring game, more valuable in the playing than her photographs; she thought of her camera as a talisman which protected her from the dangers she encountered in getting her photographs. She was, she said, a “spy” who could “figure” herself into any situation and who had “some slight corner on something about the quality of things” so that “there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them.”

While young she had written that she wished to be “a great sad artist.”: she believed this involved a life of risks and poverty. Art could not be “rewarded” with money; fashion could not be “art.” Indeed, she seems to have been ashamed of making money and she was careless about handling it, as her father had been. In nearly everything she says about herself in the collected interviews and tape-recorded remarks that her daughter and Marvin Israel put together after her death there are exhalations of an inarticulate and poetic atmosphere of mind that she must have acquired at the progressive schools she attended and that no doubt gave rise to this romantic, magical, and somewhat aristocratic conception of the artist.1

There is also in Arbus—what Bosworth does not mention—a dry and restrained, whimsical sense of humor which is not a little self-conscious and literary and which does not always quite succeed. In one of her earliest photographic essays, which first appeared in Harper’s Bazaar and was later reprinted with additions in Infinity, there are some clear examples of this humor, together with ample evidence of that careless and romantic tendency I have mentioned. “These are,” she says of her subjects, “six singular people who appear like metaphors somewhere further out than we do, beckoned, not driven, invented by belief, author and hero of a real dream by which our courage and cunning are tested and tried; so that we may wonder all over again what is veritable and inevitable and possible and what it is to become whoever we may be.”2 What are we, and how have we become what we are? We have constructed ourselves, she thinks, and we could have been different.

Her camera is a moral instrument which will show us just a few of the infinite possible paths of self-development. In the descriptions she appends to her photographs that follow, of a man who has been tattoced 306 times, or a humorous old tramp who describes himself as Uncle Sam and wears a red, white, and blue satin suit, there is no feeling at all that she is setting out to depict freaks. We get instead the impression that she is offering an amused appreciation of people who have chosen to adopt unusual patterns of life; she rather enjoys these characters, we feel, in the way she enjoyed, as Bosworth notes, reading Edith Sitwell’s descriptions of English eccentrics or Lewis Carroll, and indeed there is a fairy-tale atmosphere in some of her descriptions of her pictures. One of her subjects calls himself a prince and lives in a “bejewelled, encrusted, embellished and bedizened 6 by 9 ft. room on 48th Street.” He says he is the “rightful Hereditary claimant to the Throne of the Byzantine Eastern Roman Empire” and that

if his Empire were restored to him, he would model its Constitution after that of the United States with the additional proviso of Absolute Power for the Emperor, but he does not seek this destiny, preferring to live quietly as he does, enjoying the nightly society of his friends in the 57th Street Automat. He has prudently avoided venturing near Constantinople, the hereditary Capital of the Empire, where several of his ancestors were assassinated.

The tattooed man is described in the way one might introduce a character in a children’s story: he “has so much more than enough of women that he treats them with a devastating coolness…they often promise to marry him if he will erase his tattoos so whenever he wants to break off with a girl he gets another.” Another of her subjects, a mulatto male impersonator, is a figure in an allegory: she was accused of being a man in women’s clothing and admits “wryly that most people would figure they’d had enough, just being a mulatto and would be content to sit on the racial fence without climbing astride the sexual one.” Arbus gives each of her subjects a title, like “The Marked Man” or, in the case of the male impersonator, Miss Storme de Larverie, “The Lady Who Appears To Be A Gentleman.”

Arbus’s photographs cannot be for us what they were for viewers in the Sixties, when they first appeared, and were interpreted against standards developed in a cultural mood strikingly different from ours. But how do they stand up today? Bosworth’s book contains no more satisfactory an account or appraisal of Arbus’s photography than of her character. The background of Arbus’s style, she says, lay in the reaction of photographers like Robert Frank and others to the classical style of Edward Steichen, with its emphasis on “tonal quality,” composition, and fine printing. Arbus, she says, combined the radical “snapshot aesthetic” of Frank with “heroic portraiture,” producing work she describes in such terms as “intimate and creepy” or “grotesque and defiantly spiritual.” Arbus’s “central concern,” she continues, was “focused on the nature of being alone and our pitiful range of attempted defenses against it.” Arbus, she thinks, sought to reveal the private faces of her subjects, and in order to arrive at this truth she developed a “self-conscious collaborative” approach “in which subject and photographer reveal themselves to the camera as to each other.” She repeatedly quotes sources who tell her, for example, that Arbus “stripped away everything to the thing itself” and “stripped away all artiness.”

This is a popular interpretation of Arbus, but it is not convincing. Whether or not Arbus practiced a self-conscious collaboration with her subjects, the photographs themselves seem neither to reveal the “truth” about their subjects (let alone about their author, who remains entirely mysterious) nor to escape “artiness.” With their black borders and stark, brightly lit subjects, they have a cold, dead elegance that seems studied and artificial; a self-conscious artistic sensibility seems to obtrude excessively into these pictures, as if their creator were still, to some extent, arranging the models and their makeup and accessories. The whimsical tendency I mentioned earlier that touches her work in places seems to have hardened in her later work, in which she seems to be preoccupied with marginal patterns of life and with rendering the familiar strange, so that while these later photographs of course show true aspects of their subjects, as all photographs in a sense do, they are no more truthful than a district attorney’s speech that emphasizes some truths in order to distort others. Nor do they seem to serve the moral function she thought her work could serve, for they do not broaden our moral imagination or faithfully describe the variety of human experience.

It is instructive to put Arbus’s work alongside that of a photographer she greatly admired, Weegee, who worked for New York tabloids in the 1930s and 1940s and who later moved to Hollywood, where he made “photocaricatures” using kaleidoscopic lenses. Weegee’s subjects are similar to Arbus’s—he shows us drunks, corpses, transvestites, people sleeping on park benches in the summer, children picking at their noses—but there is nothing morbid or remote about his pictures; they are thrilling and vulgar. Arbus’s mannered, static snapshots show people detached from their ordinary circumstances like entomological specimens, whereas Weegee’s subjects, whether they be girls imploring their favorite movie stars for autographs at a première or members of a crowd staring at a murder victim, some laughing and others crying, are always shown in the midst of their lives, absorbed in their misfortunes or happiness. He has, moreover, a way of inducing in us a feeling for their fears and impulses and expectations, whereas Arbus’s work is unable to do this: her photographs call too much attention to her; one is too much reminded that her success as a photographer consists in her “figuring” herself into a strange situation and too much invited to ask how she did it; her photographs seem merely to announce her successes to us.

The temperament that informs Weegee’s photographs seems coarse, unsentimental, but also enthusiastic; he is drawn to any manifestation of life—fist fights, car accidents, rehearsals at the opera, riots, Harlem masquerade parties; he is wild for money, cigars, whores, and careless about “releases.” He will do anything for a photograph, and tells us in his autobiography that he once dressed up as a hospital orderly to get into the room of a dying gangster with his camera.3 Yet this temperament, one feels, is more generous than Arbus’s and can take in more of the fullness and the constant features of life than hers can. Her work, by contrast, is chaste, icy, stylized; there is something life-denying, at any rate not quite human, about it that prevents it from being altogether first-rate.

This Issue

August 16, 1984