(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Diane Arbus’ haunting photographs have fascinated the public since the 1950’s, when this elusive and intense young photographer was making her name in the world of fashion. By the time of her suicide in 1971, Arbus was best known for her compassionate yet uncompromising images of freaks and misfits, pictures that alarmed and entranced the viewer by the way they dissolved the difference between “normal” and “abnormal.” Arbus’ suicide helped to make a cult figure of her. Until Patricia Bosworth’s biography (which was published in hardcover by Alfred A. Knopf in 1984) became available, however, there was little precise analysis of the relationship between Arbus’ life and work, and there was not much solid information about her background and the major influences on her distinctive style.

Diane Arbus: A Biography is a compelling study of Arbus’ life. There are disappointments in the book, some beyond Bosworth’s control. Arbus’ daughters chose not to participate in the making of the biography, and Bosworth was not permitted to reproduce any of Arbus’ photographs. A few such reproductions would have infinitely enhanced the discussions of the genesis of Arbus’ recurrent, even obsessive images, and those who have the Aperture collection of Arbus’ work would be advised to keep it handy while reading this book. Another flaw is that the biography is too firmly set in the early 1980’s when it was written, so that references are frequently being made to long-past events as taking place “now.” A very minor cavil concerns the style of the notes: In an effort to avoid breaking up the text, note numbers are not given, so that source-tracking becomes a time-consuming, hit-or-miss occupation. There could also be more precision in the dating of major events. Readers who want to know exactly when something happened frequently have to backtrack.

These problems aside, the biography is readable and clear; Arbus comes alive as a product of her time and place. The backdrop of the 1950’s and 1960’s is persuasive. Also, the book is particularly valuable for its vivid takes, somewhat like snapshots, of the other photographers whose vision influenced that of Diane Arbus. The focus of the biography shifts so completely to these artists and their way of looking at the world that the sudden changes may at first be disconcerting, but ultimately these sketches prove both relevant and valuable.

Arbus was born in 1923 to David and Gertrude Nemerov, wealthy New York fur merchants whose money came from Gertrude’s family. Diane was the second child; her older brother would grow up to be the poet Howard Nemerov. Her younger sister Renee would be an artist and would marry another artist. As a child, Diane was surrounded by luxury but was more or less ignored by her parents, particularly her father, whose main concern lay with the fur business. The Nemerov children, then, were reared mostly by nannies and left to amuse themselves in the vast playground of New York. They had quite a bit of freedom, and Diane took advantage of it. Bosworth describes how Arbus’ preoccupation with the rejects of society dated from her childhood and how the adolescent Diane would follow a bag lady home to see where and how she lived.

She grew up quickly. One of the photographs included shows a dreamy girl with long, dark hair, identified as “Diane at fifteen.” At this time, according to Bosworth, “she had just fallen in love with Allan Arbus.” Diane Nemerov and Allan Arbus were married against her parents’ will just after Diane’s eighteenth birthday. This marriage ended Diane’s life of ease, as her parents did not help the young couple financially. After the war, the Arbuses were able to support themselves, at first minimally, doing fashion photography. The couple’s two children, Doon and Amy, were born during this period. An intriguing pictorial essay, which appeared in Glamour in 1947, featured the young couple as one of “seven married couples who are collaborating on joint careers in the arts, the sciences and business.”

The details Bosworth provides of the young couple’s friendships and married life define a society of artists—a kind of grubby New York Bloomsbury. The couple rebelled against the sexual codes of the 1950’s and decried marital exclusivity. Diane may have been rebelling in addition against the polished surfaces of her childhood world. Her father was frequently unfaithful to her mother, but they pretended...

(The entire section is 1830 words.)