Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Beauty and the Freak

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Beauty and the Freak

Article excerpt

Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer

Arthur Lubow

Jonathan Cape, 752pp. 35 [pounds sterling]

When, in the mid-1950s, a softly spoken fashion photographer started to approach extraordinary-looking people in Central Park and Washington Square in New York City, and in diners, on buses and on the beaches and boardwalks of Coney Island, she could honestly say that, bored by perfect models, the portraits she persuaded them to sit for were "just for me".

Even after these private projects made Diane Arbus famous, she maintained that art should be its own reward. "I can't believe that money is any sort of proper reward for art," she said. "Art seems to me like just something you do because it makes you feel good to do it." Publishing and exhibiting, she explained, complicated the conversations that she'd had with her subjects.

Today, the record for the sale of an Arbus print is held by Child With a Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, NYC (1962), which sold for $785,000 last year. The Arbus archives --donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2007 by her two daughters, Doon and Amy--are closed and, for her fans, they have the same kind of mythic status as Sylvia Plath's missing journal holds. "In the Beginning", a long-awaited selection of her earliest work, is on show there at the moment, with a catalogue distributed by Yale University Press.

Although she had a privileged childhood (the Fifth Avenue department store Russeks was the family's lucrative business), Arbus's adult life was beset with financial problems. The black sense of humour brought to the fore in Arthur Lubow's Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer makes you think that she would have seen the funny side of how a single print of hers is now worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. And yet today, even with ever-rising prices for her work and a growing market, Arbus's eye for a flaw leaves her vulnerable to accusations of cruelty.

In the early 1960s, her work coincided with the rise of the New Journalism. It is certainly true that, in her magazine commissions, she could go for the jugular with the best of them. "Giving a camera to Diane Arbus is like putting a live grenade in the hands of a child," raged Norman Mailer, after seeing her portrait of him in which he sits in an armchair like a tiny man-child: his feet don't touch the ground and, mid-flow, he is thrusting his crotch towards the camera. "Yeah, yeah, sure ..." one imagines her mumbling, wide-eyed, as she quietly went about her business, skewering him for all time.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Arbus's death in 1971 at the age of 48 was a suicide. As a result, like Plath's, her life has all too often been read backwards. As Lubow writes, "Arbus after her suicide was widely thought to have recorded her pain in her art ... to have sacrificed her emotional well-being by looking too unblinkingly at the anguished, abject and misshapen." When asked how she was, her most frequent response was Woody Allen-ish: "Everything is awful."

Helped by Arbus's closest friends and a keen pursuit of her subjects, Lubow offers an important refutation of the myth: that of the uptown Alice in Wonderland, cosseted from reality, who jumped into the grimy rabbit hole downtown and never made it back. Instead, his reading of her work presents her as an artist offering "a giggle in the face of calamity".

Whether she was photographing bad circus acts, Mailer, Mae West, ageing socialites or posturing teens, the argument for a mordant wit in her work convinces, but it's a knottier question whether that giggle is "at" or "with" her subjects. …

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