Photographer Diane Arbus was a complex individual, one who essentially went the opposite direction of the world in which she had been raised. Born to the owners of the famed Russek’s department store on Fifth Avenue in New York, she wanted for nothing in her early years. By the time she married Allan Arbus, the former Diane Nemerov had found herself an increasingly bored and frustrated fashion photographer’s assistant. Though she and her husband would go on to great acclaim with their work for various fashion publications and promotional campaigns, it never rang true to Diane. By the late-1950s, she had walked away from the world of fashion photography and followed her own idiosyncratic muse.

Rather than focusing on the “beautiful people,” Diane trained her camera on the marginalized, spending time with them to learn their story in order to best capture their essence in an iconic photograph. It is within these photographs that her own biography lies, each image representing as much of her as the primary subject. At the heart of her work is an attempt to correct the societal misunderstandings and preconceptions based on outward appearance and/or social standing. By humanizing those often viewed as less than – dwarfs, transsexuals the physically handicapped, etc. – she presented each as the person they were, not the false impression placed upon them by an often callous society.

Diane herself experienced similar presuppositions based on the societal caste into which she was born, one of money and privilege. And it is this society in which Arthur Lubow tends to become lost, spending more time contextualizing the world within which Diane was formed and those flitting about around her than with his titular subject. Because of this, there are large swaths of time during which she becomes an almost ancillary character in the story of her own life. Whether or not this was a conscious decision due to her own interpersonal passivity and preference to remain behind the camera rather than the photographic center is beside the point as, for the first chunk of the narrative, she slips in and out of the frame without ever truly coming into focus.

Because of this, Diane remains frustratingly elusive. Described as a deep thinker and often thought to be lost in a world of her own only to return to conversations with a full understanding of the pertinent details, she rarely comes off as such in Lubow’s depictions. Given the sheer length of the work, a great deal could have easily been trimmed in order to hone the focus so that greater time and attention were devoted solely to Diane in her formative, pre-art photography years. We are instead left with fleeting impressions of how she was perceived rather than who she may have actually been.

Somewhat admirably, however, a great deal of the narrative is given over to her development as an artist following the dissolution of her marriage and retreat from the social stratus in which she had come of age. Here, we get a better glimpse of the woman behind the camera as well as the subjects she set out to capture. With her depressive episodes becoming that much more extreme and volatile, her eventual suicide at the age of 48 becomes that much more tragic with her not receiving the help she so clearly needed in order to continue functioning in any capacity.

Ultimately, Lubow’s approach spends more time on the minutiae and non-essential details, padding the story of an otherwise fascinating life with far too much contextual and intrapersonal details. His use of speculative conversations finds several chapters devolving into something resembling historical fiction, adding little to our perception of neither Diane nor those around her. While positioned as a portrait of the photographer, Lubow has a hard time bringing Diane Arbus into focus, making for a messy, overly long examination of a life worthy of a better, more concise treatment.

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