Sex became inextricable from Diane Arbus’s photography…
Photograph of Diane Arbus by Allan Arbus, c.1949
Arbus was clear about what she wanted and why. The trouble is there’s still such scant understanding, let alone appreciation, for what it means to be a woman and wired the way she was.
We seem to know everything about the sexual preoccupations of great men. Of Kafka, Flaubert, Manto, Henry Miller, and V. S. Naipaul’s devotion to brothels (to name just the most ardent few); of Auden and Isherwood moving to Berlin “for the boys”; of Boswell’s almost majestic lifelong case of gonorrhea; of Gauguin in Tahiti; of Kehinde Wiley in Harlem, picking up men outside his studio to paint and sleep with. Whether you’re disapproving or admiring, it seems like an article of faith that for the male genius desire is a wellspring of creativity, intellectual inquiry, energy (well, perhaps less so for poor Boswell).We have only the skimpiest vocabulary when it comes to writing about women in this way; about their sex lives as a grand adventure, as something that spurs on their work, something that belongs to them alone. We prefer their adventures to remain private, in the context of marriage—or at least love. Think of Nan Goldin’s photographs of her lovers Brian and Siobhan in The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, Sally Mann’s nudes of her husband in Proud Flesh. But Arbus was exceedingly strange and exceedingly free, intent on pursuing her attraction to seediness (you can smell the dank motel rooms in her photographs) and determined to face down her own disgust.
Sex became inextricable from her photography. Both took her deeper into people, into their mysteries, their secrets—and into herself, one imagines. “Diane told me she wanted to have sex with as many different kinds of people as possible because she was searching for an authenticity of experience—physical, emotional, psychological,” a friend said. “And the quickest, purest way to break through a person’s façade was through fucking.”