Photographer Diane Arbus has a mystique to match her fame. What compelled her to photograph people "in the midst of the residue of their disordered lives"? The facial expressions she captures are often of discomfort, embarrassment or irritation. There are no photos included in An Emergency in Slow Motion, but many of those referenced can be viewed in a gallery online here.
Prostitutes, cross-dressers, lesbians, eccentrics and nudists were some of the subjects that fascinated her. Biographer William Schultz writes that her camera "provided a kind of harsh yet undeniable attention people believed they deserved." Statements like this made me uneasy as I read; how does Schultz know what Arbus' subjects believed? Penelope Tree describes modelling for Arbus as torture: "Now I know why everyone in her pictures looks like they do -- because they have to spend three hours with Diane Arbus staring at them."
I was curious to know more about Arbus, so I persevered with this book, even though psychobiography is not my thing. I'm not convinced that it's possible to understand an artist by analyzing their work.
Schultz admits that the best he can aim for in his interpretation is a blurry picture. "But that's what people are. Personality is blurry. Life itself is blurry. We live in ambiguity. We die there too." In 1971, when she was 48, Arbus killed herself. Even though she took two kinds of barbiturates and slashed both wrists, Schultz doesn't believe that her death was intentional. He strengthens his case with input from Arbus's therapist, but it still looks like suicide to me.
In addition to overcoming my resistance to Schultz's approach, getting used to his specialized language took me about three chapters. For example, in reference to photos exploring sameness (as with twins and triplets): "She welded bodies symbiotically, forced physical unities, while at the same time flaunting binary oppositions. I see this as a visual representation of Arbus's internalized object relations." Thankfully, unfamiliar terms are usually explained within the text: "Compulsion is [...] a response to ego-dystonic thoughts -- ideas at odds with the self."
Schultz doesn't shy away from discussing sex and the way he sees it defining Arbus's motives and conflicts. "If what Arbus wanted, and this is what she said herself, was to freeze sordidness, perversity, nastiness, puerility, then sex fits the bill. Freaks show us, aggressively, what we prefer overlooking, but sex ups the emotional ante." Arbus had both male and female sexual partners. She "called herself an explorer, and she was, no doubt, with all the requisite bravery and heedlessness. She was seeking the territory of the self."
Was Arbus a freak, as Schultz asserts? Was her pathology also her genius? I don't know if it matters, but I will view her photos with more context from here onward.