When Diane Arbus committed suicide in 1971, she was only 48 years old, and her career was on the climb. One of the foremost photographers of the 20th century, she had the remarkable ability to call up and capture the idiosyncrasies of just about anyone who submitted to her lens. As Arthur Lubow observes in Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer, she “excavated the truth—or a truth” about her subjects.
In this new biography, which is brisk and accessible despite its 700-page length, Lubow tells the story of an artistically brilliant but emotionally fragile figure. During her relatively brief career, Arbus managed to capture with her camera a broad cross-section of humanity, including nudists, cross-dressers and the mentally handicapped. Born in 1923 into an affluent Jewish family (her brother was the poet Howard Nemerov), Arbus grew up in New York City. She received her first camera from her husband, Allan Arbus, with whom she started a successful fashion photography enterprise. Around 1956, she quit the business and began taking the forthright, unstaged portraits that made her famous, shooting in black and white the very young and the very old, mixed-race couples and nuclear families, millionaires, movie stars, bums, and sideshow freaks.
The book’s chronology is cued by her photographic output. In tracking the timeline of Arbus’ life through her art, Lubow brings to bear on the narrative a deep appreciation for her pictures and an impressive technical grasp of photography. An award-winning journalist, he explains the circumstances that shaped Arbus’ most iconic shots and—prompted by newly discovered letters and exclusive interviews—explores the controversy she courted by becoming close to some of her subjects. Bringing Arbus out from behind the lens, Lubow sheds new light on her genius and delivers a definitive portrait of the artist.