“I think all families are creepy in a way,” the photographer Diane Arbus famously wrote, three years before she killed herself in 1971 at age 48. She could have been talking about her own upper-middle-class, assimilated Jewish family or the families she invented in her often startling photographs of mentally disabled adults, rich children, twins, cross dressers, circus freaks, nudists, little people, giants, and other outsiders.
Or both. That is the suggestion that Arthur Lubow, a journalist and author of a 1992 book about the reporter Richard Harding Davis, makes in his enormous and enormously satisfying biography.
Born in 1923 in Manhattan to a philandering department store mogul and his depressed, imperious wife, Diane (pronounced Dee-ann) surprised her family by, at age 18, marrying Allan Arbus, an advertising paste-up guy working for her father. The couple started a fashion photography business and eventually had two daughters.
In the mid-1950s, as the marriage was breaking up, the Viennese-born photographer Lisette Model taught Arbus how to wield a camera as “an instrument of detection.” Model’s student would become famous, an illuminator of secrets, and an advocate for photography’s potential as art.
Told in short, precise chapters evoking a literary version of Arbus’s stark photographs, Lubow’s biography, which grew out of a 2003 New York Times Magazine story, proposes a kinder, gentler Arbus than the one in the popular imagination. Lubow rejects the idea, advanced by a number of critics after the photographer’s death, that she exploited the people who posed for her. “The mistake is to imagine that she entirely empathized with her subjects or despised them,” he observes.
Arbus did write that in a way, she envied those whose pictures she took: “Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”
In this first major biography of the artist in 20 years, it’s a shame the reader cannot judge for herself what she thinks about this by looking at a selection of key works while reading “Diane Arbus.’’ Sadly, because the Arbus estate declined to give permission to Lubow to publish the images (as it has for previous biographies), to figure out what you think, you have to trek to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where major exhibits either have begun or are opening.
The most talked-about reveal will likely have nothing to do with Arbus’s art, however. It will be Lubow’s treatment of her sexuality. It is hardly news that, as a child, Arbus played erotic games with her older brother, the poet Howard Nemerov. But Lubow tells this story more fully than did Patricia Bosworth in her important 1984 book, “Diane Arbus: A Biography.’’
One way he does so is to put front and center a recently excavated detail about how months before her death, Arbus told her psychiatrist that she was still sleeping with Howard. Apparently, she was as remorseless about this as about her many other conquests: “[S]he referred to their ongoing sexual liaison . . . as if there was nothing so remarkable about it.’’
To Lubow’s credit, he does not use Arbus’s relationship with Howard to pathologize her work. Neither does he consider her notorious promiscuity — in the 1960s, she picked up men on Greyhound buses and on the street, slept with her subjects, and participated in orgies — as only a consequence of incest. Rather, he links her polymorphous perversity to a tangled, divided self, a relentless and courageous need to make art.
Equally intriguing is Lubow’s take on why Arbus killed herself. He does not reject the possibility of incest as a factor, but he offers in addition her depression, financial distress (despite winning two Guggenheim’s she scrounged for money until the end), and “an act of generosity,” by which he means she knew that upon her death her work would “skyrocket in value,” as she put it. Perhaps some readers will view both observations as stretches, but Lubow makes a persuasive case for each.
Despite the sadness of its subject, “Diane Arbus’’ is not a grim book. But it does quash any romantic illusions about the challenges faced by American artists in the 20th century. For Lubow, Arbus’s fragile, yet resilient psyche sustained her in a culture that grinds down even the most talented souls. As he points out, women artists are “typically forced to choose between precarious independence and stifling domestic obligations,” so they start from a weak position.
Leaning on years of reporting, Lubow makes many new, brilliant observations, from how the photographer’s macabre sensibility was baked in early on (in a high school essay, she argues that it was right for Hamlet to die because he could be loved), to how her photography is the pictorial equivalent of the New Journalism, the subjective technique of nonfiction storytelling that burst out of the late 1950s.
Some of these observations are heartbreaking. When Arbus had to go to the hospital to deliver Doon, her oldest daughter, she slipped out of the house by herself, leaving only a note on her pillow.
Given Lubow’s rich, layered narrative, I wish that he engaged more fully with ideas about the theater floating around at the time. Arbus’s mother named her daughter after an actor. Allan Arbus, her husband, became one. And surely in the 1950s, the vogue of the Actor’s Studio’s idea of psychological truth influenced Arbus’s style of plunging into greater honesty in a picture, of transforming herself into one role and her subjects into another.
But ultimately this compelling book shows an Arbus that is as mysterious as her best photographs. Like them, she tells us something about ourselves that is vital, but that we may not always want to see.
Portrait of a Photographer
By Arthur Lubow
Ecco, 734 pp., illustrated, $35
Rachel Shteir is the author of three books, most recently, “The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting.’’