Research point: Diane Arbus

For this research exercise we are asked to read and reflect upon Liz Jobey’s essay ‘Diane Arbus: A Young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, N.Y.C. 1966‘ which was featured in Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs by Sophie Howarth (2005, London: Tate Publishing).

Jobey begins her essay with the statement: ‘The fictions we make about photographs are as unreliable as they are unavoidable’. If we look at the accompanying photograph of the family, we cannot help but see how uncomfortable they look. Jobey then poses a few leading (or misleading) questions about the family.

A Young Brooklyn Family Going for a Sunday Outing, N.Y.C., 1966. © Diane Arbus
A Young Brooklyn Family Going for a Sunday Outing, N.Y.C., 1966. © Diane Arbus

She then denotes the way the family looks, drawing our attention to their clothing and the contrasting personalities of the husband and wife, at the same time making some connotations from their stance, gesture and gazes. We see that the husband is watchful, but engaged with the photographer. His wife, however, is holding her baby as a protective shield in front of her and is looking off into the distance with an extremely sad expression on her face. Their mentally handicapped son is fidgeting agitatedly between his parents, also looking off at something out of frame, while the baby gazes fixedly straight ahead. Jobey describes this image as a ‘contemporary metaphor: the unhappy family snapshot’. There is no sense of togetherness in this image. We see all the family members looking in different directions.

This photograph was first published in the London’s Sunday Times magazine and in her short write up on the image, Diane Arbus commented to the magazine’s editor that ‘they were undeniably close in a painful sort of way.’ Jobey questions Arbus’ phraseology stating that ”undeniably’ has a patronising air, as if, in her judgement, under the circumstances, genuine closeness between the couple was impossible.’ Peter Crookson, the Sunday Times magazine editor, however, changed Arbus’ text to read ‘the family is undeniably close in a painful, heartrending sort of way’, diverting the experience of pain to the photographer (and most probably to the viewer). We know that Arbus complained about this change to her text.

But does the photographer (and the viewer) ever really know what truly goes on in the minds of the subjects? The photographer may have a little more information at hand if he/she has engaged in some conversation with the subjects, but the extent of this knowledge is not always imparted. Instead the viewer can only rely on the accompanying text for context. The viewer is left to rely on one’s own cultural experience and history and knowledge of human nature to draw one’s conclusions, thereby creating a rich tapestry of interpretations.

Jobey then goes on to provide a bit of contextual background on Arbus’ photographic experiences, mentioning her ‘freak’ projects and the compositional ways she posed her subjects. This is followed by a brief biographical history of Arbus, mentioning Arbus’ struggle with depression and her eventual suicide.

It is clear that Jobey has done a huge amount of research in order to write this essay. Her text is liberally peppered with quotes from Diane Arbus, gleaned from various publications and exhibitions; extracts from letters, diaries and sketch books that were compiled in the autobiographical publication Revelations in 2003.

Reference List

75 Reasons to Live: Jeffrey Fraenkel on Diane Arbus’s A Young Brooklyn Family Going for a Sunday Outing, N.Y.C. [online] Available from: https://www.sfmoma.org/watch/75-reasons-to-live-jeffrey-fraenkel-on-diane-arbuss-a-young-brooklyn-family-going-for-a-sunday-outin/ [Accessed 23 January 2015]

Jobey, Liz (2005) ‘Diane Arbus: A young Brooklyn family going for a Sundayouting, N.Y.C. 1966’. in  Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs. ed. by Howarth, S. London: Tate Publishing

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