Reading Pictures Research Point


Read and reflect upon the chapter on Diane Arbus in Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photography by Sophie Howarth (2005, London: Tate Publishing). This is out of print but you may be able to find it in your local university library: some of the chapters are available as pdfs online. You’ll find the Arbus chapter on the student website.

A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, N.Y.C. 1966 – Diane Arbus

The essay seems to be in three sections, the first section is very superficial and subjective and looks at what can be seen on the surface without much background detail or context. The second section goes in to detail, with the artists intentions added and an analysis of the subjects psychological and physical states and gestures and the third section is a conclusion of all the points that have been examined in order to pull all the information together, using the writer’s own personal judgement on the photo to conclude.

The first thoughts that went through my head when I looked at the Diane Arbus photograph that this essay comments on were that the subject’s don’t look very happy considering the title of the image is ‘A young Brooklyn Family Going For an Outing, N.Y.C, 1966) and the first paragraph of the essay immediately addresses this first reaction of the viewer –

‘…you can’t help wonder what will become of them. Are they victims of some tragedy waiting to happen? Will they fight, separate, divorce, marry other people? Will they die an early death? Or will they live out the cliched, doomed existence of a blue-collar couple in a Bruce Springsteen song? But first, more pertinently, why do we assume they are victims at all?’– Liz Jobey – Howarth, S (2005) Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs

The language used in the first paragraph is informative, elaborate in language and uses rhetorical questions to engage with and involve the reader. The mention of a Bruce Springsteen song is very clever as it becomes immediately apparent as to what type of people the writer is referring to and that is indeed the type of people we see/assume are before us in the photograph.

The essay then goes on to describe the body language of the subjects to explain further as to why we assume they are victims. She examines each subject individually and comments on their posture and attire and the tones of the photograph that point towards their personal feelings and the way that they present themselves to us as the viewer.

‘His [the young man] whole physical presence is tentative, a lightly poised figure in shades of grey compared to the solid, voluptuous presence of his wife, all black and white contrasts, with an armoury of self-protection clutched in front of her: the leopard-skin coat, the leatherette handbag, the camera case with the strap wound round her fingers crossing out her wedding ring, her bland white baby.’ – Liz Jobey – Howarth, S (2005) Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs

After this the writer goes on to explore the eye contact (or lack of) and gaze of the subject’s and also makes note of a gesture made by the child that is mirrored in the mother’s hold of the baby. I admire the way the writer can fluently include so many points in to so few sentences, adding just enough description to make the point without having to write a whole paragraph on each point itself. I know immediately which part of the photograph is being referred to and even if I haven’t noticed it before I can see it so clearly once it has been pointed out to me so articulately.

The next part of the essay introduces more context – the caption provided by Arbus just before it was published in a magazine in Britain two years later and then more personal details about the family. Jobey examines Arbus’ own subjectivity and her presumptions and wonders whether she misread the young family, taking their nervousness for an intrinsic problem with their marriage or feeling her own pain for the young couple’s situation rather than the couple projecting this sadness on to her themselves. In a letter to the editor of the magazine (Crookston) Arbus wrote the words ‘They were undeniably close in a painful sort of way’ and Jobey criticizes that this doesn’t leave the image much room for interpretation, implying that Arbus didn’t believe that the young family would never be able to achieve a genuine closeness and therefore immediately labeling the young family as pitiful. When the image was published in ‘The Sunday Times’ Crookston rearranged Arbus’ words to read: ‘Richard Jnr is mentally retarded and the family is undeniably close in a painful, heartrending sort of way’ which Jobey suggests shifts the pain from subject’s to photographer and poses the question – did Arbus detect a sense of pain or did she feel the pain herself when photographing them.

Jobey then explains why Arbus’ imagery of extraordinary and ‘different’people was so disturbing, suggesting that it wasn’t the characters within the photos as much as it was the way in which Arbus photographed and ultimately how she portrayed them. Joby talks of the technique of Arbus’ photography and how she backed them in to a corner.

‘She shot them at three-quarter figures, with little surrounding detail, and in every one the person photographed looked straight back in to the camera, with a direct gaze that was unsettling in both its passivity and its wilful surrender to the act of being photographed. Their very deliberate full-frontal stance suggested an unusual complicity between the photographer and her subject.’ – Liz Jobey – Howarth, S (2005) Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs

Jobey also mentions the ethical concerns that were raised as a result of this style of photography (and the photographer’s intentions) of such potentially vulnerable people.

The next section of the essay is about Arbus herself, some details about her background and how she got in to photography – it was her means of escape. Jobey adds the viewpoint of Sontag who thought that Arbus’ fascination with freaks ‘expressed her desire to violate her own innocence, to undermine her sense of being privileged and vent her frustration at being safe’ and then she adds the conflicting viewpoint of Szarkowski. This section is quite psychological in its analysis.

The last section is a conclusion of Arbus’s intentions -how she did not see it as her duty to introduce them in to mainstream society. The last couple of sentences tie in with the family in the image in question again, how it was an ordinary Sunday like any other according to the images descriptive text – yet Arbus’ image tells us otherwise and Jobey’s finishing statement is to inform us of this, again, to sum up and conclude.


Exercise 2 Reading Pictures


Rip out an advertising image from a newspaper supplement and circle and write on as many parts of the image as you can. Comment on what it is, what it says about the product and why you think it’s there. You could use this as the basis for your assignment if you feel it’s taking you somewhere interesting. Or you could adopt this method for your assignment preparation.

Come back to this exercise when you’ve reached the end of part 4 and see if you can add anything to your analysis.


Coming back to this after completing part 4 notes:

Denotation :- What’s denoted in the image above is two children sitting on a blue sofa partaking in two different activities. There are crumbs of cake on a plate on the floor below the boy beside a red mug, and a slice of whole cake on a plate next to the girl. The girl is reading a newspaper and the boy is holding a fishing rod over her head.

Connotation :- What’s connoted in the image is that the sofa is comfy and that the boy is fishing for the girl’s cake because he has eaten his own and is tempted by her uneaten one. Also it is connoted that the two subjects are siblings and that the sofa is the family sofa at home and that it is presumably morning as the girl is wearing pyjamas, although the boy is dressed to go out for the day.

Punctum :- The punctum of this image might be the boy’s fishing rod, once you realise where it is heading. The viewer on seeing the boy’s mischievous might feel connected to him as they remember their own childhood, or they might feel connected to the girl and remember their own sibling rivalry. This is another layer and an alternate way of reading and interpreting the image, the under layer being simply a boy and his sister partaking in their favourite activities on the sofa.