Arthur Lubow has been writing for magazines for forty years, but for the past twelve years he was intensely dedicated to one subject: the photographer Diane Arbus. What started out as a magazine assignment became a deeply-researched and compelling portrait of one of the most enigmatic and iconic photographers of the 20th century. Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer, which was published in the summer of 2016, became both a critical and journalistic project for Lubow, who drew heavily on interviews with Arbus’ friends, lovers, and colleagues, as well as Arbus’s previously unavailable correspondence. We spoke to Lubow about his research, his relationship to Arbus and her work, and his future projects.
How did your interests in Diane Arbus develop, and what led you to eventually write a biography about her?
The book actually came out of a New York Times Magazine cover story I did back in 2003. The idea for an article was brought to me by a publicist from Random House, they were bringing out a big book in conjunction with an Arbus retrospective [at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art]. Arbus’ daughter wanted there to be one magazine story, so I went to editor of the Times Magazine to pitch the article, and from there my interest grew.
The relationship between Arbus’ works and her life seemed especially rich and fascinating to me. She herself was enormously, amazingly articulate about it, so there was that awareness and a record about these sorts of connections she made herself. I found her use of a camera interesting as well. It’s a mechanical instrument that people think of as being just a mechanism, and yet she was able to turn it into such an expressive instrument. And that made her even more intriguing to me.
After writing the article, I continued to be fascinated by her. I was familiar with a good part of her work, and I had a very basic knowledge of her life. Arbus herself said on more than one occasion that she photographed what gnawed at her. Sometimes these things, you can try to explain them but they operate on some kind of gut visceral instinctual level, and I think there probably was something like that going on with me.
Before your biography was published, the definitive Arbus biography was Patricia Bosworth’s Diane Arbus, first published in 1984. What made you feel like it was time for a new Arbus biography?
That biography was written about twenty years before I published my piece. It was a long time for there not to have been another biography, especially since a lot of new information had come to life. In fact, a lot of this new information was released in conjunction with this 2003 show. The estate which possesses all of Arbus’ journals and diaries and also the letters that she wrote to her husband, her children, and her lover Marvin Israel finally published excerpts which had never been seen before. They were just there for any new biographer to use.
The great contribution of the Bosworth book is the early years of Diane Arbus, because Bosworth was able to speak to a number of people who are dead now, but who knew Diane as a child, such as her mother or her brother. But Bosworth couldn’t use some of that information because these people still alive and didn’t want their interviews published. However, when I was writing my book, Bosworth very generously allowed me to use her interviews and her notes, which are in the Boston University library archives.
How was your approach in writing the biography different from Bosworth’s?
I thought my approach was quite different to Bosworth’s. She's very interested in suicide, and she first thought of doing a kind of triptych book, not only of Arbus, but also of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Then she decided on just Arbus. That’s a very different angle of entry to mine. I was interested in Arbus as an artist, that is what made me want to write the biography. I feel like that motivation in itself justified another biography. The Bosworth book, at least the first half of it, is devoted to Arbus’ life before she even becomes an artist. In my book there’s a lot of discussion about how she came to take various pictures that would eventually define her career. That kind of focus had not been in any previous discussions of Arbus in the past.
Then there were a number of people who spoke to me who wouldn't speak to Bosworth because back then I was still authorised by the estate for that magazine piece. These people liked me and they liked the way the magazine piece had turned out, and they continued to provide me with information. On of these people was Pati Hill. She was one of Arbus’ two closest women friends, and she had about fifteen letters from Diane that she bequeathed to me that no one had ever seen before. They contained everything from really vivid descriptions of a nervous breakdown that Diane had to her hospitalisation for hepatitis. So there was a lot of information in those letters, and Patti Hill herself had a lot of extremely specific recollections. She met Diane in 1942 and her memory was not only extremely vivid and specific, but it was accurate. [Hill] herself had a very original cast of mind and in some ways it was as close to the way as I would ever get to Diane. There’s a moment in the book, where Diane, early in their friendship, puts her forehead against Patti’s and says, “when I look at you, I don't know if I'm seeing you or me.“ That was their original way of seeing things, and Patti reminded me of what i had read in Diane’s own writing.
What was your method in researching and writing the book? Did you feel your writing process was different as a biographer or a critic than it had been as a journalist?
This book is, I would say, closer to journalism than to criticism. Its a biography thats reported, in that sense its’ like journalism. The research is also similar to journalism, except that you have the luxury of more time. It’s also different, of course, because the length is so much greater and so you have to structure it much differently. It’s like what people say about squash and tennis: It look likes the same game but it’s not, you have to play them very differently.
It’s one thing to ask a reader to maintain interest and concentration for, say, 8,000 words, which is the length of a Times Magazine cover story, which was the length of mine. With a book, you have to devise different strategies, but that part of it I really liked. The notion of how to encourage the reader to want to keep turning pages without making the book meretricious in some way and still be a serious consideration of an artist, that was a good challenge. It was different from writing magazine journalism. I had written a biography before, in 1992, about Richard Harding Davis [the turn-of-the-century reporter and celebrity]. It’s a very different book and he was a very different person, and enough time had elapsed so that I had forgotten the difficulty of writing a biography so that I could embark on it again.
In terms of research, I spoke to many people who had known Arbus and also read various correspondence, notes, and so forth. I tried conveying themes as vividly and specifically as I could report them, so I would try to find documented evidence or documentation of dialogue, for instance. There’s a certain amount of dialogue in this book, and its all comes from the reports of people who were there. It’s not my recreated dialogue. I was also just trying to be as vivid as possible in recreating scenes. That’s a technique of the new journalism and it’s never really gone away, and that applied to both magazine writing and biography. Of course there are cheap cliffhangers you can use, or you can ignore more theoretical topics, you can leave that stuff out and just have it read like a suspense novel that’s heading toward a suicide, but I didn’t want that, and yet I did want the reader to keep going with it and even, if possible, find it hard to put down.
What were some challenges while writing the book?
I think the most frustrating thing had to be persuading people to speak with me. The book was unauthorised, so some people felt a loyalty to the elder daughter, since she controls the estate. That was by far the greatest challenge, the thing that drove me crazy. Piecing the whole thing together as a puzzle, in terms of how to write it, that was enjoyable to me. Piecing out how to structure it, how to begin it, how to end it, how long the chapters should be, that was all enjoyable.
Arbus was an extremely complicated person, but that made it a more interesting project. No one ever really got bored with her, she was very surprising and often very funny, and you never got tired of her.
What are some other models of biographies of photographers or artists in generally that you found inspiring or particularly successful?
There’s no real book I could point to as a model or prototype. I liked the idea of being an old-fashioned biographer like Lytton Strachey. I liked the idea that a biography could be as engaging as a novel. I guess I think most biographies are not, and there are various ways in which the biographer creates a distance between the reader and what is being described. I wanted, as best I could, to take that away, to be as immediate as possible. You're always going to be interviewing people, looking through archives, or reading secondary sources, but how you write it and structure it varies.I was thinking as much of fiction as I was of nonfiction, or even movies.
The book itself starts in the middle of the story. It starts with a scene, almost like a 40’s movie. You see a scene at the beginning and you don't quite know exactly whats going on, and then the movie begins at a previous time and moves forward and then you get back to that sceen, and then you understand it. I do that actually.
I was also at the time thinking of certain photo books, such as The Americans by Robert Frank, that are sequences. It’s a very subtle sequence but the pictures are placed in a particular order. They don't exactly tell a story, but they’re contrasting and aligning with each other in an intentional manner. I've thought sometimes of my book chapters – which are quite short and there are many of them – of being like a photograph, and that each one would be composed, that it would have things in the foreground things, in the background, things that were left out, things in focus and out of focus, and so on. I was thinking more along those lines, not of any particular biographer.
Do you have another project lined up? What’s coming next?
I’m doing some shorter things now. I would like to do another book, not a biography but a nonfiction book. That’s all I’ll say for now.
Interview by Luisa Rollenhagen