Research Point-Diane Arbus in Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs by Sophie Howarth

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

An essay by Liz Jobey: A critical and personal review

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copyright Diane Arbus Estate

Read and reflect upon the chapter on Diane Arbus in Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs 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. 

Jobey’s essay offers a detailed and insightful analysis around a single image.  I cant’t help feeling the authors offers a significant caveat about how we interpret what she has written and also how we draw meaning from any image.  One of the opening comments is:

“The fictions we make about photographs are as unreliable as they are undeniable.”

Having read the essay several times this opening statement stood out more and more each time I visited the work. What  I have taken this to mean is that we need to be cautious in what we read into an image and it is ultimately a subjective viewpoint. There is a supreme irony in Jobey’s words in this statement in that she goes on to reveal  very concrete and credible set of insights into the family in the image, their lives, the cultural and temporal context of the image and to me, most of all, an insight into Arbus and her career in a single image. This essays offers a blueprint for the power that an individual work by an artist can reveal . The essay also demonstrates a very  eloquent and robust response to the challenge set  to Beaumont Newell by his friend and photographer Van Deren Coke  to speak for an hour about a single image. This challenge is the premise for Howarth’s(2005) book from which this particular essay is drawn.

To focus on the essay itself and the task set out in the C&N materials, Jobey uses the opening paragraphs of the essay to locate the family in the image in a  wider american trope of ordinary people whose lives may not have turned out as they expected. The reference to Raymond Carver (1938 –1988), the novelist and poet who exemplified ‘Dirty Realism’ further anchors the image and how it might be read in a genre that emphasises the disappointments, broken dreams and hard realities of the characters in this type of work. This early use of intertextuality weaves the potential connotations of the image into a bigger american story about unfulfilled expectations, dissatisfaction, disaffection and the challenges faced by the ordinary in their daily lives. Like  number of artists, Ginsburg,  and Karouac to name two, in the post war period, there is a challenge to a prevailing orthodoxy pedalled by a consumerist media that suggests the american dream is a reality for all.

A similar reference to ‘blue collar’ and Bruce Springsteen songs also makes a cultural link to the anthems of ‘Heartland Rock, a musical genre that concerns itself with the plight and their oppression by the ‘system’

Before describing the image and what it denotes in any detail beyond it being a Brooklyn family about to go out on a Sunday outing, Jobey boldly asserts in a style that might be deemed patronising to the subject and the readers, that :

“We pity them partly with hindsight for their compliance”

I have to question the use of ‘we’ and also ask the question is the compliancy to the request of the photographer or more about their position in late 1960’s american society?

It is only after this statement that we get the authors description of what is in the image. Joey forensically looks at each element of the image describing the four Characters and also making a range of assumption about them.

This too is interesting in that denotation and connotation are interwoven in the text as its set out what we literally see and what Jobey believes it connotes. We are also seeing this through a lens that has already told us in the opening paragraphs that this family have problems. The shy, but direct gaze of the father at the photographer, the only character in the scene how looks directly at Arbus and by default at us as the viewers is described  as being ‘tentative’. His presence in the image is contrasted with that of his wife, whose clothes, poise and ‘armoury of self protection’, the coat, bag.

We gain some further contextual and artistic insight through the reference to correspondence between Arbus and Peter Crookston the then deputy editor of the Sunday Time Magazine ( at one time a significant platform for photographers work)

 Jobey quotes Arbus describing the couples relationship :

“they were undeniable close in a painful sort of way'”

Jobey then ponders on whether the use of the term undeniably is patronising in that it might be interpreted as being judgemental. Through research into Arbus’s writing we then gain a much greater insight, through Arbus’s recollection of the couple into their lives and we gain a glimpse, all be it obliquely into the dialogue that must have take place between photographer and subject. This struck a real note of interest with me because I have in my own work in photographing strangers on the street tried to create sets of questions that try an balance insight through dialogue without appearing to pry. That might be a whole other blog post though. 

Jobey then locates this image and its publication in the Sunday Times Magazine in 1968 in real;ion to Arbus’s rise to notoriety following the inclusion of 35 of her images in an important exhibition at MoMA curated by John Szarkowski, then the Head of the Photography department t the “Modern’. Displayed along side the work of Freidlander and Winnogrand, this exhibition  was to showcase street photography in a new way. 

Gefter (2017) quoting Szarkowski says:

““New Documents” … a showcase for a new kind of photograph, from a generation of artists who had embraced an almost existential attitude toward the medium, adopting “the documentary approach toward more personal ends.”

Joey goes on to describe the different approach to documentary photography in Arbus’s work and her win need to reveal thins that in plain site are often missed by others. Quoting Arbus :

” really believe there are things that nobody would see if i didn’t photograph them”

We get a tangible sense that Arbus was doing far more than just documenting the world around her and her photographs have a very different intent to the previous work of documentary photographers many of whom might be described as having an altruistic intent. 

There are many references in the essay to ‘Freak’ one of Arbus’s main project and one which showcased in “New Documents’ Her engagement and subsequent recording of propel on the margins of American society because of their differences is also related to Arbus’s own inner struggles, struggles that ultimately led to her suicide in 1971. Born into a rich family Arbus had been protected from much that the majority had to face in terms of concerns about money, the future and trials the majority take for granted as part of life. There is a suggestion in the essay that argus’s engagement with people on the margins was an attempt to gain a greater insight in the the world she had been protected from. Although not apparent in the text i can’t help thinking that the patronising tone that i observe in some of Arbus’s statement is a function of her ‘elite’ background , although this perhaps reveals something of my prejudices about that rich? Interesting Sontag, quoted by Jobey suggested that Arbus work lacked compassion, a challenging statement given i think Arbus was may be trying to discover compassion through her work.

There is no doubt that Jobey achieves an immense amount in this essay, taking a single image,  Arbus has used to challenge or venue subvert the classic tropes of the family photograph, the map much about Arbus, her life and the impact of her work. I have learned much more about Arbus through this one image and I can’t help but feel far more daunted now about Assignment 4 and what is expected of me!

References

Evers, S. (2008) Raymond Carver: The King of Dirty Realists, The Guardian-2008 found at http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2008/aug/13/raymondcarverkingofthedir  (Accessed March 2017)

Gefter, P. (2017) The Exhibit that Transformed Photography, The New Yorker March 2017, found at:  http://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/the-exhibit-that-transformed-photography (Accessed March 2017)

Howarth, S. (Ed.) (2005) Singular Images-Essysa on Remarkable Photographs, Tate Publishing, London

King, S. (2009) Raymond Carver’s Life and stories, New York Times found at: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/22/books/review/King-t.html (Accessed March 2017)

Sparknotes (2017) ‘Dirty Realism’ defined found at: http://www.sparknotes.com/short-stories/cathedral/section3.rhtml (Accessed March 2017)

75 Reasons to Live: Jeffrey Fraenkel on Diane Arbus’s A Young Brooklyn Family Going for a Sunday Outing, N.Y.C. found at: http://www.sfmoma.org/watch/75-reasons-to-live-jeffrey-fraenkel-on-diane-arbuss-a-young-brooklyn-family-going-for-a-sunday-outin/ Accesed March 2017)

 

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