(This JPEG illustrates a print made later by Neil Selkirk, under the auspices of Diane Arbus's daughter Doon's administration of her estate. It was part of the Berman Collection and was auctioned at Christie's in 2008 for $15,000.)
It was my friend Jim Schley who taught me that reading a book is an event. Just because a book exists in a kind of stasis, containing all it contains unchanging and waiting with infinite patience for our attention, doesn't mean that it's not an occasion for us when we experience it. I've been so busy lately that I'm making my way very slowly through my current read, An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus, a "psychobiography" of Diane Arbus. But the book is getting better and better. It's possible that it's best to read this one very slowly, a bit at a time, because it's dense with complex insights and not easily skimmed.
One frustration is that the book is not illustrated. So the author will remind us verbally of a picture and then proceed to describe it and analyze its elements. It's frustrating, because of course you need to see the picture. So I end up illustrating the book myself by trying to find the pictures on the Internet. It leads to some odd tours of old pictures...an image search for "penelope tree" is like a short tour of '60s fashion photography, for instance. It's like reading a book that's illustrated by the photographs you need to see and then several thousand more at random.
Here's what author William Todd Schultz has to say about the picture above:
Another shot externalizing Arbus’s sense of herself as a small girl, and the feelings she was expressing with too little frequency, is 1962’ s “Penelope Tree in the Living Room.” [...] Ms. Tree, who later became a model and the ultimate sixties "It” girl, seems on the verge of violence. She’s livid, arms akimbo, bangs perfectly snipped , enraged apparently by the bad luck of being so spectacularly rich. [Penelope Tree was Arbus]—just another side. Even the biographies match to a startling degree. Tree was rich, her father a confidant of Winston Churchill, her mother an American socialite who represented the United States at the United Nations and who famously predicted for herself a life of “parties, people, and politics.” There were servants, butlers, maids, cooks, chauffeurs. Mother was never around, Father was secretly bisexual. Also like Diane, Penelope was “virtually ignored. It was a buttoned-up household; nothing was talked about.” It was “poor little rich girl,” Tree says. “It really was. It was a funny way to grow up—but the visuals were good.”
Tree was thirteen when Arbus shot her for Town & Country magazine. She can’t recall how the two came into contact. “It was torture,” she remembers, “the whole thing. Now I know why everyone in her pictures looks like they do—because they have to spend three hours with Diane Arbus staring at them.” It was a hot day in August. Tree was dressed in riding gear at one point, though in the printed shot she wears a pleated skirt and penny loafers and stands on an ornate rug just to the right of a chandelier. “Now I know what she was trying to get,” Tree continues. “Spoilt rich kid looking absolutely desperate in her native habitat.” In other words, what Arbus was trying to get once again was herself. The shot is another in a long list of examples of Arbus working hard and at great length to coerce a subject to act out a drama less her own than Arbus’s.
(Schultz, William Todd, An Emergency in Slow Motion [Kindle Locations 768–784]. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition. )
That quote is telling—"It was torture, the whole thing. Now I know why everyone in her pictures looks like they do—because they have to spend three hours with Diane Arbus staring at them."
Schultz's book, like everything I've ever read about Arbus, is ultimately unsettling. At times it gives me a sort of antsy, clammy feeling like I want to get away. Penelope Tree's quote reminds us of the surprising thing Arbus's famous subject Jack Dracula said of her after finally succumbing to her relentless pursuit: "She had no personality whatsoever."
Diane Arbus in 1949 by Allan Arbus
Oddly, I almost never make it to the end of photographer biographies, although I have several dozen in my library. I'm only a quarter of the way through this one and not making much progress, so we'll see. Sure is interesting though.
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James Sinks (partial comment): "Your closing comment rings true for me. I just cannot read 'art books' of any stripe...despite having shelves full of them. Ultimately, my problem is that I despise speculation presented with authority. "