Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Bosworth's Life of Arbus

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.


zoe said...

I've always loved her pictures too. I think it's at least partly because I used to own a copy of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter that featured an Arbus photo on the cover and now the two things are fittingly (for me, anyway) inextricably linked.

Have you seen any Martin Parr photos? I think you'd like him.

jrlennon said...

No, I haven't. I'll google 'im!

Rich said...

There's a traveling retrospective of Arbus's work called 'revelations,' i think. I saw it in San Fransisco a few years ago. Arbus's work seems highly polarizing, and i rather strongly dislike her pictures (I don't see any compassion for her subjects, just exploitative leering), but the exhibit is interesting regardless. Most interesting, it has contact sheets for alternative takes of some of her famous photos. It also had a couple of her cameras there and a bit about why she switched when she did. might be worth checking to see when its coming to your neck of the woods.

bookfraud said...

very interesting post, and please feel free to write about photography more.

though i'm hardly a photography connoisseur, arbus has always intrigued me for the same reason as you say -- her pictures, in an odd (dare i say "postmodern") manner, say more about those viewing them than those in them.

but that there's no discussion of her art in a biography is mind-boggling. it's like writing a biography of a composer or musician and not examining their music in depth.

do you think it's symptomatic of celebrity culture, in which the reading public is more interested in personal woe (and degradation) than the artist's actual works?

jrlennon said...

Rhian and I caught it in New York. Probably the best thing about it was her "wall"--they reproduced this wall of clippings, postcards, and notes she'd had in her apartment. One of the letters that was on there was from a friend who signed with a little rubber stamp he had had made of himself...I promptly went and got myself one of those. So now a lot of my personal correspondence has this little blurry image on it of me drinking a cup of coffee.

jrlennon said...

Oh hey bookfraud, we cross-posted. It isn't that there's NO discussion of the art in this biography...only that there isn't enough for my taste. The book was written in the early eighties and definitely has a feminist bent to it...I think the author was simply interested in Arbus, The Woman more than I was. If it were written today, perhaps the author would have been more comfortable dispensing with that material and bringing in more process and analysis.

I'm not sure about the celebrity culture thing...the reason people want to talk about personal things is because it's what everyone has in common, it's a shared language. Conversely, talking about art on a sophisticated level is really hard, and not what everyone wants to read, anyway. But it's what interests me.

AC said...

You mentioned a common language... When I go to the camera shop (as I did recently to buy an exciting new digital SLR!) I have trouble even asking them questions in terms they understand. I think the bio you are looking for is one written by a photographer.

jrlennon said...

Yeah, I totally agree. A photographer who also excels at writing and research. Not many artists get their perfect biographer, though...

I gotta ask, ac, what DSLR did you end up with?

AC said...

I got the Canon Rebel xti. A big step forward from the borrowed 1970's Minolta I've been using for the past 5 years. I didn't really do any comparison shopping. I know two people who have this camera, and having built-in mentors was the draw for me.

jrlennon said...

I ended up with a Canon too...seems like an awesome system...my photog friend recommended it.

Honestly, I don't think there are crappy DSLRs anymore. All of them take great pics.

Anyway, enjoy!