Sometimes I enjoy reading biographies and autobiographies of artists. The subjects don't have to be photographers. I like reading about painters and sculptors and writers, too.
Last month I was on a Diane Arbus kick. I read "An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus" by William Todd Schultz. I also read Patricia Bosworth's "Diane Arbus: A Biography," and "Revelations," which was published in conjunction with a large exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in October 2003. "Revelations" contains at least 300 images and lots of previously unpublished excerpts from Arbus' letters, notebooks, and other writings.
I started off not liking Diane Arbus' photographs. I'm not really sure why I didn't like her work. It certainly wasn't because they're weird, or dark, or make me feel uncomfortable. Those are actually the reasons I've come to like them -- and respect her as an artist. I suppose I didn't know much about her and her work before I read the three books. (I did see the movie "Fur" a few years ago. Talk about horrible!)
I started with Schultz's book, what he calls a "psychobiography." Here's the summary:
"Schultz veers from traditional biography to interpret photographer Diane Arbus' life through the prism of four central mysteries: her outcast affinity, her sexuality, the secrets she kept and shared, and her suicide. He seeks not to diagnose Arbus, but to discern some of the private motives behind her public works and acts."
Schultz is a college professor and writer who writes "psychological profiles, or interpretations, of artists." I enjoyed his book the least of the three. I found it monotonous and uninteresting. And uncomfortable to speculate on such personal matters. Honestly, it felt a little cheesy to me. Maybe because I've never read a psychobiography before. (Note: I'm probably not going to seek out any others either.)
The other two books were much more interesting -- and more traditional. I especially enjoyed seeing some of her contact sheets reproduced in "Revelations," and reading the "In the Darkroom" chapter, a discussion of Arbus' printing techniques by Neil Selkirk, the only person authorized to print her photographs since her death. She did no dodging or burning when she made prints in the darkroom!
Arbus was a very focused and intense person. She comes across as almost maniacal, a slave to her vision. She reverberated with ideas for photo subjects. She had guts. She was brave to push so hard to realize her raw, unflinching vision. She was a trailblazer.
While she's not my favorite photographer, after reading the three books and seeing more then just the most commonly reproduced images (the twins, the boy with the grenade), I have a new respect for her and her work.
Photo credit: Camera obscura ... Diane Arbus poses for a portrait in New York c. 1968. Photograph: Roz Kelly/Getty Images