Book: Diane Arbus: A Biography

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Her exact words. We held the pose for what seemed like hours—until my kneecaps went numb. The flashbulbs kept blinding us, she kept assuring us we looked terrific. Arbus looked tense. She told us as soon as she finished shooting she was taking the next plane back to New York; she’d flown out specifically to photograph us and she seemed a little angry about it.”

Diane was angry. Privately, secretly, very angry. Because ever since Allan had left New York, Marvin Israel seemed to be paying less attention of her work existed, so they talked of the possibility of one. “Diane was gentle and kind,” Squilaco recalls. “She showed me many photographs I’d never seen before. When I said, ‘Would you like to do a book with me?’ she answered, ‘I’ll have to ask my mentors—Richard Avedon and Marvin Israel. And of course Marvin would design any book I do.’ And I said, ‘But I’m the art director of Ridgeway, so that’s out of the question.’ She just smiled and shrugged.”

In March 1970 the London Sunday Times asked Diane to photograph some of America’s leading feminist theoreticians, among them Betty Friedan and Kate Millett. Diane knew little about the movement’s troubled factions. All she knew was that at Westbeth consciousness-raising groups were popular with her artist friends—wives and mothers had invited her to join them in long evenings of intense talk and self-discovery. But Diane was skeptical. She wasn’t sure that women uniting in a common cause (human rights) would behave any differently from men; she doubted they would be any less ambitious or competitive. Even so, she was intrigued by the feminist leaders she planned to photograph—especially Ti Grace Atkinson, considered by some to be the most extreme and charismatic.

Ti Grace Atkinson was tall and sardonic with an elegant feline face half hidden by blue-tinted glasses. The daughter of a wealthy Louisiana family, she was getting her Ph.D. in political philosophy at Columbia. Ti Grace

She was also developing and printing more retardate pictures from Vineland. She kept going back to the home and staying there as long as she could before returning with fresh rolls of film. The images excited and disturbed her every time they came swimming into the enlarger. By now she had enough pictures for a book, but she felt ambivalent about a book, just as she felt ambivalent about another show, although she didn’t say that to T. Hartwell when he visited her at Westbeth; he sat on the floor of her apartment for an entire afternoon while she showed him a batch of the retardate pictures—like the old woman in the wheelchair wearing a plastic mask and holding a Halloween candy bag in her lap. “Diane was obviously very moved by these pictures. ‘These people are so angelic,’ she kept telling me.” Hartwell says he was moved by the pictures, too, because even in her most anguished probing there was complete artistic control. “As always, Diane took you ‘inside’ and you got a distinct sense of what these characters were about.” Once again Hartwell urged her to consider a one-woman show in Minneapolis—she was ready for it, he said. And she seemed almost to agree, although they set no date.

She could not tell him her true feelings: that if there was a book of her The resulting portrait of the Mansfields appeared in the October 1969 issue of Harper’s and Diane sold the picture to other publications. “It was seen all over the world,” Mansfield claims. “We thought it was undignified.”

It was, however, consistent with many of Diane’s finest portraits: a couple in extremis, if you will; middle-aged, paunchy, oily in bathing suits, presented in sweetly prosaic terms. Diane could not and did not accept all her subjects with grace. If she couldn’t respond, her reaction was often severe.

Amy Arbus said later, “My mother was frightened by the idea of a book, she rejected it every time. She hated the finality of it. She thought once she [published a book], that would be it, kind of.”

Only three portfolios were sold: to Richard Avedon, Jasper Johns, and Bea Feitler. Bea received an eleventh picture as a gift. Inscribed “especially for B.F.,” it is from Diane’s series on “love objects” for Time-Life Books—the portrait of the housewife with her pet monkey.

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