Accounts vary, but by most she was an empathetic person. Likable? It's hard to say. I think her work remains controversial not because of its subject matter, but because of her way of portraying people. Look here here at her portrait of Anderson Cooper in his infancy. Most photographers would wait for a smile, an open-eyed stare, anything that doesn't say "funeral," as this image does. Here's another one, titled "Two Young Women with Down Syndrome." Something less than compassion seems to be going on here. Partly we're laughing with them. Partly, at them. Lastly, one of her most famous photographs, "Identical Twins". The image has an inexplicable darkness. Maybe it's the girls' expressions, which offer up the gamut of human emotion.
I found a fascinating piece in The Washington Post that features interviews with several of Arbus's subjects. Here's an excerpt:
The great recurring theme of Arbus's work is a sense of otherness, and if you talk to a few of her subjects you realize that in some cases she discovered that otherness in people and then committed it to film, and in other cases she somehow imposed it.
If she was "nice" or "sweet," it certainly didn't come out in her work. The twin girls are profiled in the article, and one of the most revealing comments comes from their father:
We thought it was the worst likeness of the twins we'd ever seen....
So then, it's the age-old question, Do we require our artists to be kind, likable people? Particularly our women artists? Is a little blackness okay in the essay or the photograph, but not in the artist herself? Does the bitch inside contribute to the depth of the art?