A biography of Diane Arbus

Cover00Prudence Peiffer at Bookforum:

IF EVERY BIOGRAPHY PEDDLES the aura of the unknown with a promise of revelation, Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographeracknowledges a darker obfuscation from the start. As his book’s fitting epigraph, Arthur Lubow chooses the artist’s cryptic challenge to anyone attempting to uncover the meaning behind her work: “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.” Arbus wrings out the cliché that a photograph doesn’t lie and rehangs it as a riddle. What is the relationship between a secret and knowledge? How well can we understand someone, even with access to her confidences? And does this information help us see her art better, too? Or, in a Derridean twist, does knowing a secret reveal the very impossibility of its existence in the first place?

Lubow confronts an extreme instance of this problem within the first twenty pages of his seven-hundred-plus tome. He reveals, without fanfare, the ultimate secret of Arbus’s life: According to her psychiatrist, Arbus had a sexual relationship with her older brother, the onetime US poet laureate Howard Nemerov, beginning in childhood, and she last slept with him just a few weeks before her suicide. I was shocked to encounter this claim so early on (and that her therapist would have shared this still feels wrong). But in detonating the taboo at the beginning, Lubow defuses it, too. (No spoiler alert here.) It is not the climax of the book, but one more beveled pane of the window onto its subject.

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