- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 3, 2004


By Doon Arbus, Elisabeth Sussman, et al.

Random House, $100, 352 pages (200 full-page photos)


I’ve been reviewing books, off and on, for many years. And yet, so far as I can recall, I never found one to rave about until now. This one is so beautifully produced, so poignant, and so comprehensive. The radiant core of the whole thing is a 124-page chronology of Diane Arbus’ life from 1923 until its sudden end in 1971. That section represents what seems to me a most important breakthrough in biographical technique. It gives the bare facts, interleaved with lots and lots of eloquently surprising quotes from Diane’s own letters and notebooks.

This scrupulously objective account will bring tears, I’m sure, to many readers’ eyes. It’s illustrated in scrapbook style throughout. While reading, I’m with the artist from year to year, sharing her joys and sufferings all the way. It’s some journey.

I was blessed to meet Diane during the summer of my 17th year, at the Cummington Center for Art and Music in Massachusetts. At 15 she was especially lovely, budding, bittersweet, and lissome as a panther. Diane had wide green eyes, and hair like smoke of incense. She’d been packed off to Cummington by her parents in order to separate her from a youth named Allan Arbus, whom she adored.

That didn’t prevent Diane from accepting me as the least unsatisfactory fellow student around. She was finishing a small oil painting of her man. It wasn’t meant to look like him, she told me. Imagining her true love as a tree king or chlorophyll person, she’d slimed his fine pharaonic skin with a pale green tone. “He’s Vegetable, you’re Mineral, and I’m Animal,” she decided — and gave me the painting.

Diane confessed to having been a weepy, sleepy Park Avenue child. A daughter of the merchant prince David Nemerov (fashion director of Russek’s department store), and sister of the acclaimed poet Howard Nemerov, she was raised as a classic “Jewish princess,” and saddled with a strict, sad, and adored French governess. “Protectively dunked in a mink-lined teacup,” was Diane’s way of putting it. Her family and her teachers at Fieldston School all seemed to think she was a “great artist” in the making. She found that expectation unjustified, terribly demanding, and embarrassing, naturally. In an autobiographical essay for her school magazine, Diane wrote simply: “I’m not born yet.”

We agreed to keep in touch. In her first letter Diane remarked: “I feel as if I could just take anything and know it my way and paint it, but it doesn’t paint as well as I know it.”

At 18, Diane married Allan. We remained very dear friends. She drew Allan and me so close together that I thought of him as a brother. “Diane & Allan Arbus” became a big name in high-fashion photography. But after 18 brave and tender years together the pair found it necessary to separate. Allan made himself over as a Hollywood actor, best known, perhaps, for his role as psychiatrist Sidney Freedman on the TV series “MASH.” Meanwhile, Diane strolled into the solitude of her own soul, turned, and was born at last. This time, as a darkly amazing documentary photographer. Carnival freaks, transvestites, dwarves, midgets, nudists, the retarded, and the desperately ordinary, along with children and a peppering of celebrities, attracted her darkly avid gaze.

The reborn Diane was deliberately skinny, seductively sympathetic, and wryly humorous. The city’s seemingly least fortunate citizens seemed to her the most appealingly distinctive. As she explained: “Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their traumas. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”

She loved aristocrats of that sort. And, in her somewhat perverse fashion, Diane unblinkingly shot them — through the head, as it were. Most photos picture people either looking or not looking, and being looked at, or not. The unique distinction of Diane’s work is that she showed each person almost (but not quite) alone for a split-second before, or after, interacting with the camera-eye. Diane’s “exposures” nakedly exposed her all-too-human subjects. She caught each one out, or rather half-aware, in the mysterious privacy — half-empty of hope and half-done with despair — between performances.

Diane once summarized her ambition as follows: “I want to photograph the considerable ceremonies of our present because we tend while living here and now to perceive only what is random and barren and formless about it. While we regret that the present is not like the past, and despair of its ever becoming the future, its innumerable inscrutable habits lie in wait for their meaning. I want to gather them, like someone’s grandmother putting up preserves, because they will have been so beautiful.”

She was right, as this book demonstrates. To the dull or hasty glance, her photographic “preserves” often appear ugly, or shocking, or both at once. Yet they are indeed “so beautiful” — albeit in frequently unsettling ways. They bring us alarmingly close to such a variegated cast of brave souls in this vale of tears.

“I truly believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them.”

There you have Diane’s motivation, in a nutshell. She was a true artist in the highest sense. In order to pursue her destiny, Diane required a little money, and a little fame — but that’s the only reason she sought them. And her few successes, in the practical sense, were more or less obliterated by successive riptides of defeat.

Most of the magazine editors for whom she mainly worked exploited Diane, paying rock-bottom fees, and even declining to reimburse her painfully modest expenses. As a fragile, female freelancer who was totally unequipped for, and unaccustomed to, the rude rough-and-tumble of professional existence, she suffered severe, humiliating attrition throughout the last, best years of her career.

Something soon upset the delicate balance that made Diane’s intimate and yet cruel art worth living to create. What was it? That’s not for me to guess, and this book rightly leaves the question open. However, “clinical depression” or what is now called bipolar syndrome doubtless played a part in the tragedy. Diane had once confessed in a letter to a friend: “The worst of it is, I am literally scared of getting depressed … And it is so goddamn chemical, I’m convinced. Energy, some special kind of energy, just leaks out and I am left lacking the confidence even to cross the street.”

In dark solitude, Diane turned from the threshold of world-fame, scrawled The Last Supper across a page of her journal, left the journal open, got into a warm bath, and slashed her wrists.

It’s really her book in a way: a present to the artist, as well as to us, put together by Diane’s ideally conscientious daughter Doon Arbus. I’ll wind this down with a quote from Doon’s own afterword. Her past 32 years as Diane’s estate executor, she writes, have been a “Challenging, quarrelsome, passionate, complicated, exhilarating, comical, obsessive, one-sided relationship with an absentee … The accumulation of all this evidence, the revelations lurking there, seemed to demand a forum, a safe place for anyone who cares to wander about at will …”

That’s what this book provides. Read it; make your own discoveries. Diane was her own best critic, so if ever there was a definitive critical biography of a great artist, this is it.

Alexander Eliot is the author of “The Universal Myths,” among other books.

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