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Wednesday, August 3, 2011
Diane Arbus’s Dark Secrets!
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A man looks at a self-portrait of Diane Arbus, which was taken in New York in 1945, during the exhibition "Diane Arbus Revelations" at the CaixaForum in central Barcelona, Spain., Gustau Nacarino / Landov.
A new biography of the iconic photographer is filled with revelations about her sexual life and allegations of incest—but only adds to her artistic legacy. Olivia Cole speaks to the author about his sensitive approach to understanding her.
With extraordinary interviews with new sources, William Todd Schultz’s An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus, to be published on August 30th, promises to be an explosive contribution to what’s known about Diane Arbus, whose influence and value in the art world has soared since her death in 1971, at the age of 48.
From her iconic photographs of twins, shy swingers, and surly teens in Washington Park to her Coney Island circus acts, Arbus’s work is instantly recognizable: an unflinching yet often strangely lyrical vision of the oddity of normality, and the normality of oddity. But for all the interest in her work, even including a fictionalized portrayal on screen by Nicole Kidman in Fur, the woman herself remains out of focus.
This mystery is precisely what the famously guarded Arbus estate would like to preserve. They have always been adamant that the art should speak for itself. In an afterword to the 2004 book Revelations, Doon Arbus wrote that her mother’s photographs needed protection from “an onslaught of theory and interpretation.” They are, she maintained, “eloquent enough to require no explanations, no set of instructions on how to read them, no bits of biography to prop them up.”
For Schultz though that was not enough. It was as a college student in the early 80s that he first encountered Arbus’ famous freaks: “I remember a girlfriend of mine reading Patricia Bosworth’s book and going downtown and shooting as many weirdos as possible.”
Astonishingly, aside from the authorized material published in Revelations,Bosworth’s 1984 biography is the only major biography to have been published in the thirty years since her death. Schultz is now a professor of psychology at Pacific University in Portland, Oregon, specializing in personality research and “psychobiography.” It’s in this genre that he tries to make sense of what he terms Arbus’s “oceanic” personality.
His idea for his book was to “super-impose the life on the work,” a process that he sees as “mutually illuminating” for both her personality and her work. With his focus on the personality of his subjects, Schultz, who curates a series of books on the “inner lives” of artists, writers and political figures for the Oxford University Press, has unsurprisingly long since been frozen out by the Arbus estate.