Recommended Reads 4 : Diane Arbus Biog & Damien Lovegrove

This time there are two books to consider and you couldn’t have two more different reads.  The first is a biography and is recommended by Alan (Stott).  It is Patricia Bosworth’s biography of Diane Arbus.  Diane Arbus is one of those photographers I have deliberately avoided having an aversion to her reputation for photographing what others have called “Freaks”.  Granted, looking at her canon of work (dianearbus-photography.com/)  you could be forgiven for thinking that was her total output.  Reading Bosworth’s biography you come to understand the paradoxes of the woman; the background from which she came and the pressures upon her.

Born into a rich New York family, Diane Nemerov and her two siblings, lived a charmed life under the care of a French Nanny.  Diane’s father ran the Russek fur and fashion shop on 5th Avenue so, while fur was fashionable with the rich and famous, the family prospered.  Meeting her future husband (Allan Arbus) when she was 14 years old Diane remained in thrall to him until her suicide in 1971, to the point where she became good friends with his second wife.  For those of us of a certain age/generation who remember the television series M*A*S*H, we have seen Allan Arbus as the visiting psychiatrist Major Sydney Freedman.  When Diane and Allan met he was beginning to make his way as a freelance photographer.

Those early days prior to World War 2 Allan and Diane worked exclusively on fashion assignments for New York magazines.  It was later, in the 1950s, that Diane strove to establish herself as an independent photographer.  With Allan following his dream of becoming an actor and Diane focusing on her photography the marriage slowly fell apart though never acrimoniously.  From then on the life Diane led would make even the most hard-nosed Soap writer cringe.  Bosworth does not disguise the depths to which Diane Arbus sank: her casual sex; the obsessive nature of her night-time wanderings in New York; the people she associated with; the lies she told (or fooled herself into believing).

The book is covered in metaphorical glue which makes it impossible to put down.  You don’t know what more could possibly happen!  The portrayal of the family dynamic: the relationships within the family, especially between Diane and her siblings (Howard Nemerov the poet and her younger sister Renée); who will be next to provide emotional scaffolding for Diane, are described with skill and clarity.  It is an easy read yet provokes considerable thought on the part of the reader.  Why did Diane Arbus react as she did to her photographic sessions with the patients of a home for people with learning and physical disabilities?  She claimed that she had no control over their actions, nor was she able to get them to pose as she wanted them to… In 1971 she contacted the organisers of a Little Peoples convention asking permission to photograph them.  She was politely told that the Convention organisers had their own Little People photographer and she wasn’t needed, thank you!  Diane was very upset by this rejection.  It was something she couldn’t understand.  At the heart of the book is sexually aware yet gamine figure of Diane Arbus who seems unable to function within the normal bounds of social expectation yet made a splendid mother to her two daughters.  It is a book full of contradictions and one that has been written with skill.

Patricia Bosworth’s biography is called “Diane Arbus, A Biography” and is published by Vintage at £10:99 though it can be purchased at a lower price.

In sharp contrast, the second recommendation comes from Ian (Stafford) and is a glossy book of superb portraits, each one of the same woman.  Damien Lovegrove’s haunting images of the beautiful Chloe-Jasmine Whichello fill every frame in the book.  It is not only a master class in how to portray glamour but an evocation of the age of glamour; that period during which Hollywood dominated the way women were supposed to look, yet modern in its execution.  The lighting is superb, the way the camera relates to the face of Whichello and how it captures the nuances of emotion is subtle and exemplary.  Not being a great lover of glamour photography and the mask that this genre tends to clamp on the face of the model, I was refreshingly surprised with the way Lovegrove infuses Whichello with warmth and humour.  It is as if they are participating in some personal joke and have decided to let us share in it.  Yes, there are occasional glimpses of “flesh” but not so dominating that we can’t appreciate the face.  The face is THE recurring motif and upon closing the book you feel that you have come to know Whichello, though, obviously, in the way that the master Svengali Lovegrove wishes to present her.

Chloe-Jasmine Whichello by Damien Lovegrove is published by Floppy Chicken (yes, Floppy Chicken!) at £49:95 though, as is always the case these days, collectible copies can be obtained for more and new and second hand ones for less.

John Cogan

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