Open Secret

Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer BY Arthur Lubow. Ecco. . $35.

The cover of Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer

IF EVERY BIOGRAPHY PEDDLES the aura of the unknown with a promise of revelation, Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer acknowledges a darker obfuscation from the start. As his book’s fitting epigraph, Arthur Lubow chooses the artist’s cryptic challenge to anyone attempting to uncover the meaning behind her work: “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.” Arbus wrings out the cliché that a photograph doesn’t lie and rehangs it as a riddle. What is the relationship between a secret and knowledge? How well can we understand someone, even with access to her confidences? And does this information help us see her art better, too? Or, in a Derridean twist, does knowing a secret reveal the very impossibility of its existence in the first place?

Lubow confronts an extreme instance of this problem within the first twenty pages of his seven-hundred-plus tome. He reveals, without fanfare, the ultimate secret of Arbus’s life: According to her psychiatrist, Arbus had a sexual relationship with her older brother, the onetime US poet laureate Howard Nemerov, beginning in childhood, and she last slept with him just a few weeks before her suicide. I was shocked to encounter this claim so early on (and that her therapist would have shared this still feels wrong). But in detonating the taboo at the beginning, Lubow defuses it, too. (No spoiler alert here.) It is not the climax of the book, but one more beveled pane of the window onto its subject.

The most exhaustive biography of the great photographer written to date, Diane Arbus coincides with a retrospective of Arbus’s unseen early work at the Met Breuer and, also on view in New York, photographs from two incredible oeuvres that build on her interest in the ordinary lives of the marginalized and her deep—at times controversial—involvement in capturing them: Nan Goldin’s “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” slideshow at the Museum of Modern Art and Danny Lyon’s retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. (Goldin and Lyon also share Arbus’s belief in the need to have images around you at all times, like talismans.) It’s an embarrassment of riches to visit these shows all in one season. Arbus’s work has only grown more present with time: Once we see a photograph by her, it is, like a secret, impossible to shake. Held in its thrall, we realize we’ve been thinking about it all along.

Her work sticks with you because it is both enigmatic and unblinking. Arbus beholds her subjects with empathy and matter-of-factness, whether in The Man Who Swallows Razor Blades, Hagerstown, Md., 1960, in which a turbaned performer stands in front of a ripped circus tent on a matted patch of grass holding a screaming newborn, or Identical twins, Roselle, N.J., 1967, in which two sisters dressed the same down to their tights stand together as if Siamese twins, their very doubling revealing subtle distinctions. Susan Sontag famously criticized Arbus’s “coy and sinister” naïveté—“based on distance, on privilege, on a feeling that what the viewer is asked to look at is really other.” That otherness is, of course, the point. Lubow argues that Arbus’s choice of subject matter was not a dissociative slumming in the streets of difference. It was an attempt to connect, as she looked to find and preserve invisible bonds: “Arbus was responding to strangers who reminded her of herself or of people close to her, people looking for self-definition and emotional regeneration.” In her great appetite for connection, Arbus’s project might (somewhat ironically) be construed as selfish, but not sinister.

One way of accessing the undeniable complexity of Arbus’s genius is through the frame of the secret. A secret is, necessarily, relational—like difference, it needs another just to exist, whether to be shared in confidence or because it cannot be shared. The force of Arbus’s photos lies in this intangible contract between photographer and subject, and then photograph and viewer. Hinging on difference and a transfer of power—who is telling the secret, and who is keeping it?—it’s an anxious connection. Witnessing such a moment can feel exploitative, like trespassing. This is the fine line of exposure that any biography walks, too, and Lubow builds this parallel into his book’s plot.

Diane (pronounced Dee-ANN, after the French heroine in a play her mother liked) was born into a wealthy Manhattan Jewish family with a dwindling fur and department-store empire. Lubow’s descriptions of her uptown childhood in a dark apartment with her siblings, her remote parents, and “three nannies, two maids, a cook, and a chauffeur”—a “chilly, gilded kingdom”—are among the most vivid in the book and establish its recurrent themes. She was a quiet, beautiful child who would stand in the doorway watching others play. (Later, she would think of herself as a “spy” taking pictures.) From a young age she had a great power over people. As Lubow writes, “Diane tugged with a moonlike gravity on the imaginations of those who knew her.” She had a gift for detail, which would become evident not only in her photographs but in her evocative writing, which Lubow employs to great effect throughout his book. All her life, she “seemed to notice everything.” And from the beginning, she was fascinated by secrets, lodged in the mysteries and experiments of adolescence. “Everything grownup is invented by children,”Arbus wrote. Her photographs convey a childlike curiosity: Differences are not judged but merely observed, as if Arbus were collecting them in a box along with shells and masks. At summer camp when she was fourteen, she confided in several new friends “a few of my long-thought-out secrets” but then was miserable: “I felt as if thousands of people held my secrets and yet I didn’t love any of them.” She oscillated between intense intimacy—she was, her friends testify, a great seducer—and intense detachment.

Arbus met her future husband, Allan, when she was thirteen, and by fifteen was engaged and involved in a love triangle with their mutual friend Alex Eliot. As Lubow writes, “In her universe . . . a primary bond did not prevent another attachment. She was multivalent.” Lubow’s subsequent scenes of the Arbuses and Eliots vacationing is a novel unto itself (so, too, a passage about time spent in France with the artist and writer Pati Hill and her lover), a series of events that sets up the Arbuses’ eventual separation and Diane’s long and torturous relationship with the married artist and art director Marvin Israel.

Allan gave Diane a medium-format Graflex camera when she was eighteen, and the two began experimenting on the (then) lonely bluffs of Montauk; they were soon hired by her father to do advertising work for his department store. From the start, Diane never seemed particularly interested in the technical details of photography. She thought of cameras as “something of a nuisance,” though she experimented widely with different models, light settings and attachments (from the pebbled grays shuffling through the 35-mm shutter to the sudden, ripping glare of flashbulbs), and printing techniques. As Allan once recalled, “She was very funny about her cameras. If one didn’t work, she would put it aside and then pick it up the next day to see if it had gotten better.”

After Allan’s army duty, the couple established the Diane and Allan Arbus Studio for fashion photography and settled on the Upper East Side in a ramshackle beaux-arts limestone mansion. They had two daughters, Doon and Amy, and were successful, although always struggling; they lived, we read with some dubiousness, “on the edge of poverty.” Their work first appeared in Vogue in 1948, in an editorial spread about hats, and in Edward Steichen’s “Family of Man” at MoMA, a now infamous exhibition that set the tone for postwar photography’s politics of universality, which Arbus’s later work would upend with its focus on difference. They traveled to Europe on magazine commissions. In the New York way of things, their lives soon brushed against the most influential figures in the field: Diane enrolled in a photography course at the New School for Social Research taught by the legendary Berenice Abbott and became friendly with Alfred Stieglitz and Richard Avedon (who would remain Arbus’s champion his whole life). But Arbus was increasingly disillusioned with the photos she was taking, which did not feel true to her: “I hate fashion photography because the clothes don’t belong to the people wearing them.” She preferred when they did, because they “take on a person’s flaws and characteristics, and are wonderful.”

In 1953, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus arrived in New York. After watching its entry parade from the train station to Madison Square Garden, Arbus finagled press credentials from Vogue that would allow her behind the scenes. There, she met a group of little people, including Andy Ratoucheff, who would become one of her favorite subjects.

This “backstage” experience marked a turning point for Arbus. She separated from Allan in work and marriage, though the two remained close for the rest of her life. And at the New School, she took another class, with the renowned photographer Lisette Model, that further “freed her” to shoot the kind of pictures that she is now best known for, of people with none of the polished conformity of fashion models. “She preferred to represent the irregular and peculiar,” Lubow writes. Or, as the British Sunday Times Magazine art director Michael Rand, who hired her for multiple stories, more bluntly put it, Arbus was “good on freaks and ugly people.” Most of her subjects were marked by difference; they lived on the margins, far from the norms of society, sexuality, physicality, or gender. To photograph them, Arbus visited parks and suburban backyards, but also asylums, nudist colonies, circuses, movie houses, freak shows, wax museums, diaper derbies, apartments of the insane. These photos mix class and propriety, access and exclusion. She portrayed celebrities, and also people modeling themselves after celebrities. Many photos depict families and subjects in their own domestic spaces, whether sweeping Westchester lawns or cluttered tenements. Even her landscapes and empty rooms are full of presence. They give us the United States as an eccentric young republic, at once nervous and headstrong, canny and dumb, sympathetic and brutal, timeless and about to explode.

Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, Love-In, Central Park, New York City, 1969, gelatin silver print, 12 3/8 × 18 1/2". From the series “Big Shots,” 1969. © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.
Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, Love-In, Central Park, New York City, 1969, gelatin silver print, 12 3/8 × 18 1/2". From the series “Big Shots,” 1969. © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

By the mid-’60s, Arbus had achieved several major milestones as an artist. She won her first Guggenheim fellowship, to examine “American Rites, Manners and Customs” through mundane activities that she would collect “like somebody’s grandmother putting up preserves, because they will have been so beautiful.” (You get the sense that Arbus purposefully skewed her work toward this anodyne homemaker analogy.) And John Szarkowski, the influential successor to Steichen at MoMA, invited Arbus to appear with Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand in the exhibition “New Documents,” celebrating a pioneering style of unsentimental American photography rooted in the contingency of the street. (Arbus had a separate room in the show and received most of the press coverage.) In May 1971, she became the first photographer to have work on the cover of Artforum. The issue also featured five full-page photographs inside. Two months later, she would die by her own hand in the bathtub of her West Village apartment at the age of forty-eight.

In one of the series she worked on over an extended period, Arbus captured the winners and losers of various contests, though it’s difficult to tell which are which. Perhaps this is because, regardless of where the subjects place, there isn’t any glory, as she explained; following victory, “you have so much to lose.”

More than a decade in the making, Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer grew out of a 2003 New York Times Magazine article on the major Arbus exhibition “Revelations,” which traveled through the US and Europe. Lubow’s unauthorized biography is overly eager to prove its research in eighty-five chapters that favor the sources he had most access to, including the fascinating and underappreciated artist and novelist Hill, as well as previously published accounts (and the research for them, including the interview transcripts for Patricia Bosworth’s 1984 biography). This can lead to the distorted prominence of minor anecdotes and the repetition of others. But Lubow also labored under difficult circumstances—the book came out before the Arbus archives at the Met were made public, and Arbus’s estate withheld permission for Lubow to use any images. (I recommend reading the biography with the picture-rich “Revelations” catalogue at your side; the best discussion of her oeuvre in relation to other iconic artwork is found in art historian Alexander Nemerov’s 2015 book Silent Dialogues, a moving reflection on his father and aunt, Howard and Diane.)

The author’s workaround is clever: Individual short chapters are dedicated to her most iconic pictures—textual snapshots, as it were. We get the story behind the photographs (often from first-person interviews with their subjects), including the highlights Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C., 1962; A husband and wife in the woods at a nudist camp, N.J., 1963 (in order to gain access, Arbus herself photographed in the nude); and A family on their lawn one Sunday in Westchester, N.Y., 1968, with energetic descriptions that only occasionally dip into cliché (a photo draped “with strands of ambiguity” or as “a frozen moment in time”). Lubow vividly narrates the Westchester photo’s coming into being: We see the mother “stretched out on one chaise longue, wearing an elegant white swimsuit that she had purchased in Acapulco” and makeup “elaborate enough for a stroll up Fifth Avenue,” an impatient husband waiting for the endless session to be over, and an oblivious child leaning over a blow-up pool behind them. (It’s still Arbus herself with the best, succinct encapsulation of the scene: “In the picture the parents seem to be dreaming the child and the child seems to be inventing them.”) I’ve thought often of Arbus’s unforgettable image of a skinny kid dressed in embarrassing suspendered shorts, holding a toy grenade with an exaggerated grimace that seems to paralyze his whole body. As an adult looking back on this image, its subject, Colin Wood, said he felt a great connection with Arbus: “She’s sad about me . . . . What I feel is that she likes me. She can’t take me under her wing but she can give me a whirl . . . . I am convinced that in the picture I am actually collaborating with her.”

Not everyone photographed by Arbus felt the same. She seemed to work in two modes: collaborative or combative. Approaching strangers on the street, she often said, “‘I’m just practicing’—and indeed, I guess she was,” Allan remembered. She liked to use her heavy, medium-format Rollei camera: “To be seen by her subjects at the same time that she saw them nourished her psyche,” Lubow writes. And then, countering this empathetic approach, she could also wear people down in daylong sessions that seemed choreographed to pinpoint the exhausted moment when the subjects stopped projecting their ideal selves. This is particularly the case for her celebrity portraits, most notably of Norman Mailer, Germaine Greer, and Warhol superstar Viva, and her photographs of the upper and artistic class.

Both modes were techniques for finding out people’s secrets—what they looked like when they had dropped their guard. Arbus “wanted to know people, almost in a biblical sense,” Szarkowski once explained. “It was knowledge she wanted, not just to make a good picture. The picture was a proof of the knowledge.” Her fascination with secrets was no doubt driven by the many she cultivated throughout her life. It was also directly linked to her chosen medium and to her method of working within it. Photography has a unique ability to produce an image that “exists alone,” as Arbus put it, thanks to its semiotic indexicality. By definition, a film photograph is not personal, interpretational, gestural, expressive, though in the end it may be all these things. It is an exact, mechanical record of a moment, a reflection of light that travels through a chambered box and is chemically burned into a permanent archive in the dark. (We forget this a little, in our age of pixel portraits that disappear as quickly as they are snapped and shared.) Photography’s particular promise to deliver knowledge, to seal in an arcane scene by dint of its indexical relationship to reality, intrigued her. And the medium fit the subjects she was drawn to; it allowed her to examine people who dealt with questions of difference and concealment every day, including transsexuals and cross-dressers. Even when photographing the mentally disturbed, Arbus cultivated a bond between subject and photographer: She said it was “amazing that they can make this craziness work and they kind of can crazify you a little bit.”

Her desire for unknown knowledge drew her into certain sexual situations, too. She proceeded with a mix of bold intimacy and detachment, as she had done with her photography. She told a friend “that she slept with most of the people she knew,” Lubow writes, but also often propositioned strangers (much as she did to take their pictures). Her psychiatrist recounted that she answered ads in swinger magazines and solicited sex with women and couples, “on Greyhound buses and at orgies,” not to mention with her brother. One of the photography projects that she was never able to realize was a series of people sleeping, in which she would sneak into strangers’ bedrooms at night. Another was an “atlas of penises”—she was fascinated by their specificity.

In her own life, Arbus constantly moved between concealment and exposure, and seemed, with an almost naive hope, to hold to the possibility that a secret could be pure—joyful, even. “In a world of images . . . nothing stands still or gets heavy—the world is leaping bursting dancing, splattering shattering well-used and tireless,” Arbus once wrote to Hill with Whitmanesque optimism. The world as seen through images became a buoy on the tides of depression that rose and fell her whole life, a state she conveyed by describing a visual portrait “as if ‘I lost my face although everyone pretended I was the same as ever whatever that was.’” Photography alleviated some of that facelessness. Arbus had a firm conviction “that the mind was susceptible to visual stimuli, especially at the threshold of slumber.” She put postcards on the edge of Doon’s bassinet “to see when she woke up.” In her last apartment, she hung her photos along with other images she liked—often macabre—on a screen near her bed, as if in a micro version of Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, an unfinished early-modernist project to map history and memory as a series of connective images on screens. Arbus believed that “if you kept intimate company with pictures, you entered into a changing and charged relationship with them”—a confidence that might unfold over time, and unconsciously.

The Latin root of secret is the verb secerno, meaning to separate or distinguish, to sift apart. Or to put it another way, to find difference. This is Arbus’s power, what she could see—or perhaps more accurately, what she could protect—through her pictures. Her photographs unknot the concept of unity. “She was looking for the opposite,” Lubow argues, “a seam that was designed to be hidden, a disparity between two things (or people) that were thought to be identical, ‘a gap,’ as she put it, ‘between intention and effect.’” It’s hard not to agree with Arbus’s own sense that she had “some slight corner on something about the quality of things,” that “there are things that nobody would see unless I photographed them”—an extraordinary defense of her practice and ambition with which Lubow concludes his book. This also leads us to the biography’s paradox: No matter the knowledge accumulated there, it doesn’t possess Arbus’s gift of vision. There are things that nobody will see of her life. And her work, in all its difficult wonder, is a secret that we can keep, but never tell.

Prudence Peiffer is an art historian and a senior editor of Artforum.