In 1969, the Metropolitan Museum of Art agreed to buy three photographs by Diane Arbus, for seventy-five dollars each. Wiser counsels prevailed, however, and a few months later the museum decided to take only two. Why splurge? The Museum of Modern Art was more daring; in 1964, it had acquired seven Arbus photos, including “Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C.” Not until the aftermath of Arbus’s death, however, in 1971, and the retrospective of her work at moma the following year, did public fascination start to seethe, swelling far beyond the bounds of her profession. The swell has never slowed, and prices have followed suit. At Christie’s, in 2007, “Child with a toy hand grenade” sold for two hundred and twenty-nine thousand dollars. Last year, another print of it, this one signed by the artist, fetched seven hundred and eighty-five thousand dollars. That’s quite a hike.
Who is this kid, and what is he doing with a weapon, even a fake one, in Central Park? Well, his name is Colin Wood, and Arbus met him there in early 1962, when he was seven. We have a contact sheet of the pictures that she took that day. (It is reprinted in “Revelations,” a hefty and absorbing volume published in 2003 to accompany an Arbus retrospective.) Colin is dressed in shorts and suspenders which lend him a Teutonic air, and he is happy to strike a pose. There are eleven images, and in six of them he stands with hands on hips. Most of the time, he looks jaunty and self-possessed, and you can count the missing teeth in his grin. So why did Arbus pick the shot in which he tightens his mouth into a stretched-out grimace, cupping one hand into an upturned claw while the other grips a grenade? Isn’t he just making sport, or doing an impersonation of someone—an actor in a monster movie, say—consumed by sudden dread? Might Arbus, in short, be guilty of rigging the evidence to fit a mood, making fear out of fun?
That was what I had always suspected, until I read “Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer,” by Arthur Lubow (Ecco). One coup, in this new biography, is an interview with Colin Wood, conducted by Lubow in 2012. We learn that Wood was a Park Avenue kid, stranded at the time with nannies while his parents were busy divorcing, and “living primarily on powdered Junket straight from the box.” He brought his toy guns to school. Wood says of Arbus, “She saw in me the frustration, the anger at my surroundings, the kid wanting to explode but can’t because he’s constrained by his background.” If she did see all that, it was by instinct, with a touch of fellow-feeling; she had started out much like Colin, and continued that way. Now she found a boy preparing to pull the pin, and snapped. “Giving a camera to Diane,” Norman Mailer said, after sitting for her, “is like putting a live grenade in the hands of a child.”
Arbus was born into wealth, and you could, if inclined, construe the life that followed as one long struggle to get away from wealth—to crawl free of it, like someone seeking the exit from a treasure-stacked cave. “The outside world was so far from us,” Arbus said. She was a Russek, which to anyone who suddenly needed a mink stole, in the depths of the Great Depression, was a name to reach for. Russeks, founded by her maternal grandfather, was originally a furrier’s; by 1924, it was a department store on Fifth Avenue, selling not only furs but also gowns, coats, and, as an advertisement put it that year, “smart accessories for the correctly dressed woman.” In 1919, Diane’s mother, Gertrude, married a young window dresser at the store named David Nemerov. Their son, Howard, who grew up to become poet laureate, was born twenty-one weeks after the wedding. Diane was born in 1923, and her sister, Renee, in 1928.