Sorry to do two photography posts in a row, but that's what I'm reading about these days. I think maybe my next novel is going to involve a photo and video documentarian, so all these books fall under the category of "research."
I was pretty excited about this biography of Diane Arbus, which has evidently now served as the inspiration for a really bad movie about Diane Arbus. I'm in the Arbus-is-awesome camp, though I know a lot of people find her photos exploitive or insulting. For me, Arbus's pictures are all about the uncanny singularity of human beings--her "freaks" are ultimately not all that much more freaky than we are, they just can't conceal it. I've always seen a great love for her subjects in her work, even if some of them haven't seen it that way, later.
In any event, I found this book frustrating. Bosworth is very good on Arbus's life outside her art--her upbringing, her depression, her relationship to sex and to her body. But the thing I wanted the most was the very thing this book--and almost any biography, ultimately--was least articulate about: the pictures themselves. Maddeningly, there are no Arbus images of any significance in the paltry sets of photos included; one imagines that this is a copyright issue, but it's still a major omission in a biography of a photographer. And this omission seems to carry over into the text itself. Bosworth describes a few important pictures, and touches occasionally on how they were taken, but for the most part these sections are heavily generalized, describing the kind of things Arbus did while working, as opposed to specific things, techniques, approaches, philosophies.
The book also lacks a clear sense of how Arbus used the tools of her trade. This isn't merely a gear-geek complaint: Arbus clearly found cameras important and fascinating. She carried many different ones at once, and sometimes grew disenchanted with one or other, precipitating a switch. We learn that, early on, she switches from the Leica to the Rollei, and later from the Rollei to the Pentax. But aside from a few brief technical details, we don't know what this means. Arbus is quoted in here at one point as saying that she liked complicated cameras, that taking a picture shouldn't be easy. In the book I wanted to be reading, this would be the springboard for an entire chapter. What was it about the process, for Arbus, that made her want to struggle? How, specifically, was the process connected to her life, to her sense of herself?
Bosworth should be commended here for not offering up a reductive cause-and-effect "explanation" for Arbus's work--the psychological portrait we get of the artist is distinctive, respectful, and convincing. But there is a great void when it comes to the pictures: it's as though Bosworth is more interested in Arbus the woman--and Arbus as a woman--than about Arbus the artist. Most maddening is the absence of any real discussion of her very late work photographing developmentally disabled people in New Jersey--we hear about her taking these pictures just before her suicide, but never see them, and never see anyone else seeing them, in spite of a new afterword by the author, written a couple of years ago. I think these pictures will go down in history as the best thing Arbus ever did--they're beautiful and moving and strange, and the product of her switch to "the Pentax," the effects of which we don't ever hear about in this book.
This may sound like nitpicking. I realize that it's hard to write about art, especially in the context of a broader, more personal goal. But this is why I almost never read biographies of artists--the stuff I want the most is never there. I don't care about the nannies and the boyfriends--I care about the pictures.