New Nonfiction: Diane Arbus – Arthur Lubow

Arbus is arguably one of the few modern photographers who actually changed how we look at and feel about pictures. Her work has influenced everyone from Sally Mann to Stanley Kubrick. Her groundbreaking images of people we might normally turn our glance away from—circus performers, nudists, transgender people—were direct and arresting, like nothing people had seen before.

She was the first American photographer to be featured at the Venice Biennale, the subject of a MOMA retrospective in the 1970s that was seen by over a million people, and Aperture’s monograph on her is one of the bestselling photography books of all time. Arbus was controversial at the time and her legacy continues to be fraught even 40 years after her death by suicide at 48.

A Google search will give you hundreds of her images; below is one of the most famous, courtesy of The Met and of course copyright of the Arbus Estate.


This new biography by Lubow is the first major assessment in over twenty years and Lubow has managed to interview many of the people who were central to Arbus’s life, none of whom have spoken publicly about her before, and many of whom are in their eighties and nineties. His extensive interviews with the subjects of Arbus’ photographs gives us a new behind-the-scenes look at the artist.

This will be reviewed widely, starting with the WSJ, USA Today, Boston Globe, AP, NY Review of Books, American Scholar, New York Magazine and Washington Post Book World. Bookforum has a first serial and a feature will appear in the Arts & Leisure section of the Sunday NYT.

 “With 12 years of scrupulous research and a critic’s eye, Lubow turned a routine magazine assignment for the New York Times into the defining biography of photographer Diane Arbus….The book explores how Arbus’s lifelong depression, an incestuous relationship with her poet brother, other damaging love affairs, and ongoing financial distress may have led to her suicide at age 48. Relying primarily on interviews with friends, lovers, and colleagues, as well as Arbus’s previously unavailable correspondence, Lubow provides not only a comprehensive assessment of her groundbreaking work but, perhaps more significantly, a revealing documentary of Arbus’s often-tortured life. The biography’s only flaw is the lack of Arbus’s photos (the estate denied access); Lubow is forced to rely on wordy descriptions and exhaustive citations. But fans of her work will have no trouble calling up the iconographic portraits from their personal memory banks. And as Arbus frequently acknowledged, ‘The subject… is always more important than the picture.’
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

The author produces a thorough, sympathetic portrait of a complicated woman who, from childhood on, stood out as ‘totally original.’ . . . Lubow sharply captures Arbus’ restlessness, pain, and artistic vision.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Wow! A good biography is a balancing act: sifting through stories that sometimes contradict each other, giving enough detail to make the subject come to life on the page without getting bogged down in extraneous facts. Arthur Lubow does an absolutely stunning job, giving us not only the story of Diane Arbus’s life and career as a photographer, but also tracking down the circumstances and stories behind many of her beloved, iconic photographs. The result is a lively, articulate portrait of a brilliant, troubled artist.”
— Carol Schneck Varner, Schuler Books and Music, Okemos, MI

Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer (9780062234322) by Arthur Lubow. $35.00 hardcover. 6/7/16 on sale.

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