FREAKS AND GEEKS
Would you dance in the dark with Diane Arbus?
by Don Stradley
Reading about Diane Arbus in Arthur Lubow's meticulous new biography put me in mind of the characters Liza Minnelli used to play, those twitchy, giggly neurotics from The Sterile Cuckoo and Cabaret, young women who were bright and talkative, but concealing a deep hurt. Like Arbus, rather than reveal themselves entirely, those characters preferred to act coy and play games, manipulating the effete men around them, even as their inner lives crumbled. In Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer, Lubow gives us an Arbus who is every inch the Minnelli characters, minus the perkiness. And in place of the Minnelli melancholy is Arbus' Herculean despair. You might tolerate the Minnelli character, maybe even buy her a sandwich. But Diane Arbus? Run. Run away.
Arbus could be the third corner of a triangle that would include Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath - fragile, doomed, supremely creative but horribly unhappy women fighting to be heard in the male-centric aftermath of WWII - and not just because they all took their own lives. It's also because, like Sexton and Plath, Arbus' reputation precedes her. You may think you know something about Arbus even if you don't, but you'd be guessing right if her name conjured up images of weird people in odd poses, subjects ranging from circus folk to transvestites to the mentally disabled. Arbus' life and work has invited more psychoanalytic interpretations than most in her field, largely because she enjoyed talking about herself, and though she didn't much care for psychiatrists, armchair Freudians can't help but whack away at someone who spreads her mind apart for inspection. No matter how you ring her up, the unsettling imagery in Arbus' work seemed to create a shadow map of her darker self, a side neither she nor her most valiant observers could quite put into words. Like the Phantom of the Opera or certain sea creatures, she wallowed in darkness.
She made regular people and celebrities look hideous, while her beloved "freaks" and oddballs took on an otherworldly, strangely sexual veneer. "Giving a camera to Diane," said Norman Mailer, photographed by Arbus for Esquire, "is like putting a grenade in the hands of a child." One senses Arbus was getting even for something, some slight in her privileged childhood as the daughter of a well-to-do owner of a New York department store, or her years as a fashion photographer, years spent shooting vapid children and their families in the newest styles. She despised those assignments, taking them only for money; what made her eyes twinkle was the thought of photographing bearded ladies from Coney Island, or transsexuals disrobing in their dingy apartments. Still, the relationship between Arbus and her freaks was muddy. She took pride in capturing "things that nobody would see unless I photographed them." Yet, she often added that her subjects weren't her friends, and that she "didn't want to kiss them." Arbus even expressed to one of her mentors, Lisette Model, a concern that she was photographing "evil."
It's also the familiar tale of the pre-liberation woman trying to escape the long reach of her male dominated family - the wealthy daddy, the brilliant brother - only to run into the arms of a nurturing but ineffectual husband, affairs with married men, and then into the male dominated profession of picture taking, where she'd curry favor with magazine editors and museum curators who were usually male; that she found a favorite subject in female impersonators makes sense - she probably liked the idea of men turning into women. And powerful, confident men like Mailer were posed to look like trolls. "I mean reality is reality," Arbus said, "but if you scrutinize reality closely enough...or if in some way you really, really get to it, it seems to me like it's fantastic." Her own reality, thwarted by depression and a hollow personal life, ended when she slit her wrists in a bathtub. At age 48.
Lubow is very strong when writing about photography, how certain of Arbus' photographs "vibrate like painful memories retrieved through a numbing gauze." Ironically, his best writing comes when depicting the photographers who influenced Arbus, including Model, August Sander, and even Weegee, the mysterious NY street photographer whose crime scenes distilled American life into a noirish tableau. With Arbus, however, Lubow unfurls each key moment of her existence for thorough scrutiny, and the result can be stupefyingly dull. Lubow's less enchanted with other photographers, so he rockets through their life stories; his writing about Richard Avedon, for instance, becomes tight, energetic, as if Lubow were a racehorse that had stumbled out of the gate and realized he had to make up ground. But then it's back to Arbus, and the chapters drag by in slow motion. Each of her photos is examined in great, often insightful detail, but by the fifth time Lubow has described Arbus' shooting style as some sort of sexual conquest, with her subjects meeting her gaze in a kind of diabolical exchange of energy, you'll hope to never again see another dwarf or set of identical twins.
The reason for this may be that Lubow, in the act of writing her biography, fell in love with Arbus. He ponders the minutiae of her life - a bald patch, changes in her menstrual flow, hints of lesbianism - not only to give us as full a picture as possible, but because he doesn't want to let her go. We can feel him coveting her, fondling her frail nerves with his fingertips. He's just another of her many men, doting on her, telling us (and her) how wonderful and unique she is, from the way she, as a young girl, would often reach into a man's pants and grab his penis, to the clumsy way the teenage Arbus smoked a cigarette, "awkwardly endearing and strangely disarming."
Unfortunately, Lubow's love for his subject doesn't translate completely; it's leaden, cloying, pawing, the sort given by men of low self-esteem to actresses they'll never meet, by fan club presidents who have poured over every detail of a star's life, and are convinced that they, and only they, understand their idol's inner being. Yet, despite the book's massive length of 612 pages, there's a stinginess about Lubow. He doesn't see fit to mention that Arbus' husband Allan actually achieved his own kind of fame, starring as Dr. Sidney Friedman on several episodes of M.A.S.H., or that Eddie Carmel, the "Jewish Giant" from one of Arbus' most memorable photos, appeared as a monster in the cult film, The Brain That Wouldn't Die. Such omissions are small, but any other author would find room for them. Not Lubow. He's too busy building a shrine.
In the end, Lubow is probably the right sort of biographer for Arbus. He's respectful and intelligent, and he cares about photography as an art form. His pedigree from The New York Times and The New Yorker helps him step around the usual National Enquirer type of coverage given to the subject. This couldn't have been easy, what with Arbus' big dollops of promiscuity, incest, grubby orgies, and suicide.