Iconic photograph­er Diane Arbus comes into sharp, unsettling focus

- Matt Damsker

It’s another summer of Diane Arbus. The famed photograph­er, who was only 48 when she took her own life in 1971, has never been out of fashion in the art world. Her influence radiates through the work of the most potent and controvers­ial photograph­ers to come in her wake, and she is more dominant, it seems, than ever.

With a major solo exhibit at the Metropolit­an Museum of New York’s new Met Breuer gallery set for July, and with numerous displays in museums across the country, Arbus’ hauntingly frontal, squarely framed portraits of society’s marginaliz­ed — dwarfs, giants, obese nudists, the housebound and the outcast — are very much in sight. Now comes Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photograph­er (Ecco, 752 pp., out of **** four), Arthur Lubow’s big, sharply focused, disturbing­ly intimate biography.

Her story has been told and, no doubt, distorted over the decades. But Lubow’s deeply researched and muted narrative — there’s no need to sensationa­lize with purple prose a life so strange and so shadowed — reads definitive­ly.

Arbus devotees may know the outlines, yet Lubow breaks new ground. By the 19th page, he asserts that Arbus and her brother, the renowned poet (and U.S. poet laureate) Howard Nemerov, began a sexual relationsh­ip in their adolescenc­e that continued until the year of her death.

Lubow also brings fresh interpreti­ve depth to Arbus’ relationsh­ip to her subjects — and “relationsh­ip” is the only word. It’s well-known that she establishe­d long-term intimacy with more than a few of them, generating a level of trust that underlies the directness of their gazes into her lens. Whether capturing the domestic oddity of the 8-foot-9 “Jewish giant” Eddie Carmel or “a look of postcoital languor” on the face of the Mexican dwarf Lauro Morales, Arbus was very much in their lives, sometimes sexually, often as a confidant.

As for Arbus’ origins, Lubow efficientl­y escorts the reader through a vanished world of Manhattan privilege. Arbus was born to the line of Russeks, an immigrant Jewish family that found great wealth as New York furriers, with a Fifth Avenue department store catering to the rich through the Great Depression and beyond. Lubow suggests that Arbus’ affluence — coupled with her brilliant mind and intensely observatio­nal bent — motivated her flight from comfort to the riskier world of outsiders, dark carnivals and street strugglers.

She also fled from her marriage to Allan Arbus, who grounded her fledgling artistic career. In the 1950s, they flourished as a fashion photograph­y team for Glam

our magazine and had two daughters, but by the ’60s they had split as Arbus set out on her own. The photos that soon followed would establish her legend and define her wandering life.

Lubow chronicles Arbus’ rise and fall with a novelistic intensity that plumbs the decisive moments of a driven, unsettled soul. Along the way, he explores the complex intersecti­ons of her life and art and delivers a major work that helps us see how Arbus saw, and how she told single-frame stories that keep speaking to us.

 ?? EVA RUBINSTEIN ?? In 1971, Diane Arbus was gaunt and depressed, lamenting that her work no longer gave her anything back.
EVA RUBINSTEIN In 1971, Diane Arbus was gaunt and depressed, lamenting that her work no longer gave her anything back.
 ??  ??
 ?? STEPHEN SALMIERI ?? Author Arthur Lubow
STEPHEN SALMIERI Author Arthur Lubow

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States