Talented Life of Diane Arbus Reconsidered

Photographer Who Committed Suicide Is Examined in Book

By David Kaufmann

Published December 09, 2011, issue of December 16, 2011.
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An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus
By William Todd Schultz
Bloomsbury, 256 pages, $25

Although William Todd Schultz reminds his readers that photographer Diane Arbus remains something of a mystery, he promises that his new psychobiography, “An Emergency in Slow Motion,” will provide the needed password. It will unlock secrets. It will let us in.

And so it does. Sort of.

To be honest, Schultz doesn’t have a lot to go on. Arbus famously committed suicide at 48 in 1971, and her estate has been just as famously tight-lipped ever since. Almost two decades ago, Patricia Bosworth published an unauthorized biography that was long on innuendo and surmise. More recently, Arbus’s daughter compiled “Diane Arbus: A Chronology,” a chaste account of the photographer’s life, largely made up of excerpts from letters and journals. Originally part of a generous catalog of Arbus’s work, it has just been released as a stand-alone volume and probably will remain the last word on the subject for a while. Though Schultz has interviewed a few folks for his book, he doesn’t offer up much new information. Instead he offers interpretation.

Schultz provides a plausible psychological explanation for Arbus’s disturbing gallery of freaks, geeks and outliers. Her family — with its philandering, distant father; cold, depressive mother; its nannies, European vacations and dark intimations of incest — sounds like it hopped straight out of one of Freud’s more lurid case histories. Schultz, however, is no orthodox Freudian; he is too contemporary for that. His Arbus suffers from an attachment disorder, not Oedipal longing.

Schultz argues that Arbus’s photographs were of a piece with the rest of her disorderly life. They served as manipulative confrontations, pathological attempts to get people to relate to her. In a neat reversal of what Freud calls the “family romance” (where the child imagines that he or she is a changeling and is really of higher stock than the parents), Arbus, who once described herself as a “crummy princess,” left the not-so-enchanted castle to seek out the lower depths. Her photographs were a sightseeing trip to the repressed. According to Schultz, they were meant to break taboo, to shock and get noticed.

But this theory doesn’t really provide a new key to the Arbus kingdom, because despite its claims, it doesn’t go below the surface. It doesn’t tell you anything you couldn’t have figured out from looking at the photographs themselves. (Caveat emptor: There are no illustrations in the book. Schultz seemingly couldn’t get permission from the estate, so you have to hunt for your own evidence.) Schultz’s breezy speculations don’t go anywhere, because Arbus’s photos were about trauma and its secrets from the get-go.

Schultz would have done better to investigate Arbus’s milieu. When Arbus was born in New York, in 1923, her parents, first-generation Americans, were newly and remarkably rich. They were economic strivers and cultural aspirants who did well on both fronts. These successes were bought dearly, though, and Arbus suffered all the conflicts of her parents’ ambivalent acculturation. She lived out their defensive perfectionism, their insistence on appearances and their evasive hyper-articulateness. She expressed their constant sense of not quite belonging.

Though it might almost be too easy to say that Arbus’s fascination with freaks expressed her situation as a Jew, it is still important to make that assertion, especially as this aspect of her work seems to elude such critics as Schultz. Her fascination cut two ways. On the one hand, her photography owes a lot to the inexorable oddity of her Jewishness, its literal outlandishness. “It’s irrational,” she once said, “how much you can change circumstance and how much you can’t. The whole idea of me being born rich and Jewish is part of that irrationality.”


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