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.
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.
As a research point, we are asked to read OCA tutor, Sharon Boothroyd’s article, Beneath the Surface. The article is a discussion about Jeff Wall’s photo, Insomnia. In this article Boothroyd demonstrates how to use photographic theory to deconstruct an image.
The first order of business is to look at the image as it stands. In Insomnia we see an old gas stove against the left wall. Opposite to this on the right wall is a fridge/freezer. Against the rear wall we see avocado green kitchen cupboards. Some of the cupboard doors stand ajar. In the middle of the kitchen floor is a small table with two chairs beside it. Under the table lies a man. These are the cold, hard facts of the image which is known as the denotation.
But the denotation only tells us what is there. It doesn’t describe or allude to any emotion or meaning. This is where connotation comes into play. For instance, we know that avocado green was a very popular colour during the 1960’s. This conveys a sense of age to me and if we look at the gas stove, we can see that this too is a very old model. The lino on the kitchen floor has definitely seen better days as well. The stark light in the kitchen together with the cold green of the cupboards convey a sense of sterility to the image. This kitchen does not conjure up any sense of it being the ‘the hearth and home’. It does not convey warmth and security at all.
The half open cupboard doors and the scrunched up brown paper on top of the fridge are indicative of a unsuccessful search that has taken place in the kitchen. Had the search been successful, the doors would most likely have been closed. Further evidence of a search is the awkward positioning of the two chairs in the kitchen. Were they moved to their current positions to aid in the search, or were they shifted to make space for the man below the table? Why is he lying on the cold floor, one has to wonder? Here we can attempt to delve into some psychoanalysis by means of research into symbols. In his unpublished work, Symbolism of Place, John Fraim of The GreatHouse Company makes the following comments on the symbolism of the house:
The symbolism of the house is associated with enclosed and protected space similar to the mother’s womb. In fact it is the first place in each person’s life. As an enclosed space it serves to shelter and protect from the outside world. … each house symbolizes that place of our earliest years and the nurturing cradle of those years. … A house or home can also be viewed as simply a place where we can express a private and unguarded self in an increasingly public world. … houses symbolize the lives of their inhabitants. … (It) reflects the psychology and personality of its inhabitant.
John Fraim in Symbolism of Place
Indeed one can see from his body stance and gesture, it is clear that the man has assumed a slight foetal position and is seeking protection (under the table and within the confines of a small room). The man under the table serves as the punctum to this image. His placement is totally unexpected. The fact that he is lying on the floor alludes to his mental state. Something is obviously worrying him a great deal. He has a disturbed look about him.
Freud goes even further in his A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis and states that:
We already know the room as a symbol. The representation may be extended in that the windows, entrances and exits of the room take on the meaning of the body openings. Whether the room is open or closed is a part of this symbolism, and the key that opens it is an unmistakable male symbol.
Chapter X: Symbolism in the Dream
Now I’m not sure that I would agree with Freud. I have never studied Freud, but the little I have gleaned over the years is that his ideas all have sexual connotations, some very far fetched in my opinion. The idea that open kitchen cupboard doors representing female organs seems to be quite the stretch in my humble opinion! No doubt one can really get involved in psychoanalysis if the expertise is there.
Jeff Wall is known for creating his photographs of moments or instances that he has witnessed after the fact. Wall’s image is created in the Renaissance style of the old master painters. The mise-en-scène of the photograph is well thought out from the set design (the 1960’s kitchen) to the lighting (stark bright light) to the space (rather cramped) to composition (the use of diagonal lines to lead our eye all around the frame, the vertical and horizontal lines to provide some solidity to the image and the light and shadow in which the man is lying) down to the costume that the man is wearing.
‘He plays with the notion that implicit in every photograph is the sense of what happened before the moment depicted and what may happen after’ (National Gallery of Canada). This statement sums up the crux of Wall’s intent with his images, for when we look at this image we are left wondering what caused this man to end up on the floor in such a state and what is going to happen to him. We, the viewers, are left to our own belief system and culture to complete the narrative.
In the video below, Wall gives a little background to his method of working.
Daniel Chandler suggests, in one of his online course modules, analysing an image by looking for the following:
signifiers (are there any paradigms?)
signifieds (denotation/connotation and binary oppositions)
various codes (cultural, photographic etc.)
intertextuality (does the text refer to other artistic genres?)
I am now familiar with some of the terminology, but need to get up to speed on some of the other aspects of semiology.
Freud, Sigmund (1920). A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis [online]. Trans. by G. Stanley Hall. New York: Boni and Liveright; Bartleby.com, 2010. Available from: www.bartleby.com/283/ [Accessed 19 January, 2016]
The image I took was from a Canadian Living magazine from May 2011. It is an ad for Febreze Air Freshener.
If we look at the advert we see a portrait oriented photograph with a scene of a lounge on the upper half of the page. The lounge is spacious, has wooden floors and is painted in a pale blue colour with classical picture panels, chair rail and wainscoting along the walls with an open white door leading to off to a bathroom, the washbasin and shelving above it being visible from the viewer’s point of view. Off-white sofas and easy chairs are arrange conversationally around a wooden coffee table which is on a matching off-white carpet. Green and purple scatter cushions are arranged on the sofas. Next to the sofa farthest from the viewer is a wooden magazine rack similar to the type one would find in the 1960’s with decoupage artwork on the side, with a couple of magazines lying on the floor beside the rack. Orange curtains decorate the window next to this sofa. A pair of sneakers are strewn on the carpet in the centre of the room, the one lying under the coffee table. Between the two easy chairs is a dog’s basket with a grungy tennis ball just slightly behind it. A garment of clothing, probably a jacket is draped over the seat of the easy chair on the left. The curtains, one cushion, the back of a sofa, the jacket, one sneaker and the dog’s basket are all holding up white flags.
The upper image is separated from the lower image by a wavy line. The background of the bottom half of the page is pale blue. Slightly off centre is the statement “7 Odours surrender” with a line below this and the statement continues “to Febreze freshness”. The statement is written rather like a mathematical division equation and is capitalised. Directly below this is the letter “7” in a gradient blue superimposed over concentric circles of varying shades of blue circles. Arranged around the 7 and the concentric circles also in a circle are the following words: “smelly drapes”, “Rover odour”, “foot funk”, pillow pew”, “mildew ew”, “musty coat”, and “sofa stink”. On the right hand side we see a woman’s hand holding a Febreze aerosol with her forefinger and middle fingers positioned on the trigger. We see the Febreze logo at the bottom right of the page on the aerosol container and to the left of that, the slogan “it’s a breath of fresh air”.
The first thing that struck me about this ad was it’s metaphorical allusion to a war zone. There are seven important repetitive signs, consisting of the seven white flags, held by morphed hands (signifiers), which all represent the concept of capitulation (signified) and are also the punctum of the image. A white flag is an internationally recognized sign for peace or surrender and the origin of its use dates back all the way to the Eastern Han dynasty (A.D. 25–220) (1). It is evident from the position of the flags in the room that they are located in various battle zones. Another continuation of the war zone metaphor can be seen in the hand holding the aerosol canister. Proportionally, the hand and the aerosol are the largest subjects in the advert, attracting our attention first. The fact that the aerosol’s trigger head encroaches into the upper half of the image, can be likened to an image of an army tank coming over a hill approaching a battle ground, which, in turn, is suggested by the undulating curve which crests just behind the aerosol.
We have another important metaphor in the aerosol. The aerosol (signifier) is comprised of various parts – a chamber filled with liquid, a trigger that needs to be activated in order to expel the liquid and a firing nozzle head where the liquid is expelled from, rather like that of a gun. The signified completes the sign with the forefingers curled around the aerosol’s trigger in a similar grip to how one would hold a gun.
The statement “7 odours surrender/to Febreze Freshness” is written as a mathematical formula. In his discourse “Myth as stolen Language” Roland Barthes makes the argument that language is always open to interpretation, however ‘when the meaning is too full for myth to be able to invade it, myth goes around it and carries it away bodily. This is what happens to mathematical language. In itself, it cannot be distorted, it has taken all possible precautions againstinterpretation‘ (p. 132) (2). By writing the statement as a mathematical formula, the advertisers have removed any possible connotation that the reader could have. It is an absolute fact. This connotes that Febreze is the only possible solution to household odours. Again we see the use of military theme is reinforced in the use of the word ‘surrender’.
The number 7 in the Bible is the number of completeness and perfection. We read in the book of Genesis that the heavens and earth, sky, sea and land, vegetation, day and night, animal kingdoms and mankind and a day of rest were created in seven days. Likewise in the book of Revelations at the end times we see the seven angels with the seven bowls of wrath in Revelations 15:1 ‘I saw in heaven another great and marvelous sign: seven angels with the seven last plagues—last, because with them God’s wrath is completed’ (3).Whichever connotation we choose to use on the seven odours, the idea that their surrender is totally complete when subjected to a spray of Febreze, is very clear.
The seven types of odours encircle the large blue gradient letter 7 below the mathematical formula. Circles are symbols that represent unity. They are also often seen as protective symbols. In the Boer Wars in South Africa farmers would circle their wagons when making camp or when under attack to ensure the safety of women and children and also to provide cover from which to fire their weapons. A circle can also be seen as a symbol of containment, keeping that which is inside from being released. The enlarging concentric circles behind the letter 7 signify the aerosol’s nozzle head and the powerful spray that is ejected, simultaneously aimed at all seven odours. The alliteration and end rhyme of the words reinforce the name ‘Febreze Freshness‘ . Febreze Freshness connotes a cool spring breeze, while ‘sofa stink’, ‘rover odour’, ‘foot funk’, ‘pillow pew’, ‘mildew ew’ connote a variety of bad smells.
The colour palettes that are used in this advert all support the theme of war and peace. The dominant colour blue speaks of calmness; violet suggests future and harmony. The colour orange reminds us of courage (fitting in with the military theme), while green represents balance and renewal.
On the aerosol’s label, we see the wavy line repeated in the logo. This time the line connotes a fresh spring breeze flowing through an open window and this is confirmed with the statement ‘it’s a breath of fresh air’ written alongside the word Febreze.
Although this advert was featured in a magazine in 2011, it still follows the post-war advertisers’ strategy of aiming the ads at the women. During the war years, women were exposed to propaganda telling them how useful they were, encouraging them to work in munitions factories, and join the Women’s Royal Army Corps, and other important war effort employment to fill the gaps where their men used to work. When women were demobbed at the end of World War II and sent back to domesticity, they lost this feeling of being useful. A new propaganda campaign was needed to make women feel useful again and this is where the advertisers stepped in to fill this gap.
Women were now expected to wage war on germs and dirt, instead of the German army. Even though World War II ended sixty eight years ago, attitude has not changed much towards manipulating advertising messages aimed at women.