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


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!


Evers, S. (2008) Raymond Carver: The King of Dirty Realists, The Guardian-2008 found at  (Accessed March 2017)

Gefter, P. (2017) The Exhibit that Transformed Photography, The New Yorker March 2017, found at: (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: (Accessed March 2017)

Sparknotes (2017) ‘Dirty Realism’ defined found at: (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: Accesed March 2017)



Research Point: ‘Insomnia'(1994) Jeff Wall

In preparation for Assignment 4 I looked at Boothroyd’s 2012 Beneath the Surface post on the OCA website. This is a very helpful entry point into thinking about the structure, content and nature of the critical essay required by this next assign,went. Writing is not new to me but I am more accustomed to technical objective writing where evidence based facts are the source of the documents I produce. Preparing a thousand word essay on a creative theme presents me with some uncertainty but also an interesting challenge.


Copyright Jeff wall

In considering Jeff Walls 1974 image ‘Insomnia’, Boothroyd demonstrates some of the tools that might be used to review, deconstruct and then assemble meaning around a single image, as well as offering a possible structure for an essay. Although short the piece provides some basic description ‘in practice’ to the concepts of denotation and connotation as well as examples of signifiers and the signified. Most importantly it does set out as sort of essay plan idea by example.

This could be summarised as:

Introduction the image and the artist, some background  and links to their range of work

Literal description –what is in the image, a literal description, describing the place, the settings, the light and colours

Interpretive description –what the elements of the image might mean, to the author and the viewer, an exploratory discourse on the the layers of meaning within the imgae

A personal link for the authorher own work in Oxford, connecting this work to the authors own practice

The works contextwhere the work sits in the genre, the influences on the artist and links to wider works,

The central theme of insomnia -literary links and how this  work might connect to contemporary society, literary reference to Shakespeare as an example of intertextuality

The scale of the work -how its sits in our culture and a short subjective summary of its meaning

Although a very simplistic review on my part  of the structure of Boothroyd’s post, I found it helpful to deconstruct what she had written as a starting point for considering how I might structure how I might write about a chosen image.

I also looked at the use of specific text in this post and used the simple but i find helpful approach of creating a word cloud from the entire work. This is a technique i use in my working life to add some additional insight, I need to share the caveat that this is a very personal approach but I find it helpful, without reading too much into the activity.


A starting point but more thought needed I think!


Boothroyd, S. (2012) Beneath the Surface found at: (Accessed February 2017)


Exercise Part 4


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 Four and see if you can add anything to your analysis.

In undertaking the exercise I purposefully chose a magazine and advertisement that would be unfamiliar and to which would have no direct meaning for me. I felt this would allow a more forensic analysis of the visual and symbolic elements of the advert. For this reason I used an advert from a women’s magazine.  As I leafed through a number of my wife magazines I  was reminded of a line from Williams (1987):

“Adverts are selling us something else besides consumer goods: in providing with a structure in which we, and those good,are interchangeable ,they are selling us ourselves”                                    pp13

The advert I settled on was at first identified because it was on heavy and glossy card within the magazine. Before I looked at the images there was a sense of increased value of the product this page was peddling.  As shown on the can below I then set about analysis of the elements within the advert.

I separated the advert into a range of specific elements:

  • Text
  • Image, composition and use of colour
  • Signifiers and Signifieds
  • Message and connotation

Whether these are the right element or to I am uncertain, but they did aid me in deconstructing this advert.


Before getting into the detailed elements described above it is worth noting that there is a balanced and quite attractive composition to this advert. It has quite a classic and simple appeal in its aesthetic. Adde with the have duty pare and high quality printing (compared to the rest of the magazine, all this suggested something of quality, something standing out from the rest of the content I the magazine. The BJP has recently been printing some of its content on high grade paper/card and this advert had the same feel.


The text was simple, balanced in the composition and the font is simple and elegant. it reminded me of the 1920’s and appeared to be the same font as used in the collectors edition of Waugh’s Jeeves and Wooster novels. It is “modernist’ in the literate sense, a pre second world war serif less font. Key words are use to communicate a message:



The message is in capitals, YOU is used twice in the buyline, WON’T and WILL, stand out in the messaging. SPF FORMULA suggests the scientific, the technical, the significance of the produce. All are textual signifiers. The signed I take from this is personalisation, quality, scientifically proven and above invisible to others. A connotation is that of youth.

Other text tools add to the messaging. The Good Housekeeping Institute seal in the top right of approval. This signifier suggests endorsement by a trusted source.. The Olay Ageless logo and the AGELESS hashtag  place the product in a particular brand space.

The text below the image of the can is in a mix of upper and lower case and has a more narrative message about the product, perhaps aimed at those less foamier with the brad. this is a strong marketing message , finished off with a second and perhaps more important buy line:

skin doesn’t have to show its age

Image, composition, use of colour

As stated in the introduction, I was struck by the simplicity but engaging nature of this add visually. The picture elements are quite aesthetically pleasing. The strong red of the can of product, photographed and printed to give a three dimensional feel, contrasting with the gray gradient background that goes from dark shades in the bottom right of the advert to the light grey tones of the top left. The two feather, white in colour linking visually to the LIGHTWEIGHT reference in the first buy line. It is a high quality , high resolution product image printed on high quality media that connotes value, classiness and something worthy of purchase perhaps?

Signifiers and Signifieds

Using the same technique that Hall (2007) uses I also separated signifies and potential signified from the core elements of the advert.

As an aside, I struggled to create a table in WordPress (this is something I  will have to learn). So I created a list in word, printed it and scanned it and inserted it as an image. Not great quality, but it worked!


This was available exercise in that it showed the range of signifieds and potential signifiers. What stood out through this approach to analysing the adverts was just how repetitive some of the signifieds are. Like a repetitive voice in the background all leading to the message, buy this to be young and no one will notice!


Message and connotationWhat is the advert trying to say?

This is a high quality product, you and others won’t notice you are wearing that will make you look younger, its is backed scientifically and endorsed by external referees with credibility.

None of the above may actually be true but I think the advert is selling as Williams(1987) suggests an alternative ‘you’ and not just a can of product!

The analysis of this one advert shows the power of symbols, both in the text and the picture elements and how both support each other in the creation of an illusion about self, that transcends the idea of a can of cream that you spray on yourself.

There is a lot to learn from this exercise but I am left with a sense that it is the text in advertising that is vital, the visual element and the image lend weight I feel, but can enhance an idea the advert is selling.  But for me it is what is written  and how it is written that the real selling takes place. I have really worked hard to avoid text in my assignments to date in an attempt to get pictures to speak for themselves. Coming out of this exercise I am going to hunt down some text free advert, if there are any. I will report back!



Cobley, P, & Jansz, L. (1997) Introducing Semiotics, Icon Books , London

Hall ,S. (2007) This Mean This -This Mean That-A users guide to semiotics Laurence King Publ., London

Williams, J. (1987)Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising, Marion Boyers Publ., London



Derrida and deconstruction: some initial thoughts


The idea that language isn’t fixed and and can be malleable is on that I find ver accessible. In many years of work with children and adults with autistic spectrum disorders the flexible and at times counter intuitive nature of colloquial language is a feature of one of the principle barriers to those with autism understanding the world around them. The rules of language are not taught but rather gained through layers of successive interaction. This personal perspective on language is my starting point to trying to make sense of Derrida and the semiotic.

Also in true ‘Derridian’ style I have to challenge the statement in the course materials that reading as book takes as much effort as writing a book. Whilst I do think there is tremendous effort involved to properly read a book, i think the effort of writing a book can be all together a more herculean task!

What i think i do like about my initial reading around the work of Derrida is the challenge to a prevailing orthodoxy that sometimes says we shouldn’t challenge the ideas of the learned. The idea that scepticism and challenge are helpful in making sense of the world and that questions are perhaps the best response to a piece of writing or a piece of art and irrespective of the author or artists original intent, the reader or viewer has just as much right to their personal and unique interoperation of that work.

That said, I can see that there are common signs and symbols that lead a more common sense of underrating and interoperation. The colour read for example tends to mean danger, alert or risk and in images red has come to signify something that can be hard to define but has some universal ideas about interpretation.

I will read some more Derrida!


Exercise: Elliot Erwitt, New York, 1974

Before you read any further, look carefully at Erwitt’s image and write some notes about how the subject matter is placed within the frame. How has Erwitt structured this image? What do you think the image is ‘saying’? How does the structure contribute to this meaning?


New York, 1974: Copyright Elliot Erwitt

Magnum Agency photographer Elliot Erwitt is renowned for his humorous images of people and their dogs. There is something of the surrealist about his work and he combines a decisive moment with skilful composition and viewpoint. 




This image is no exception and there is much to glean from some analysis and reflection on the image, not least the composition that Erwitt has created. It is skilfully constructed from a low angle. There are both horizontal and vertical lines of composition creating a foreground, mid ground and distant ground which provide a depth and sense of place. This sense of horizontal planes is created through the use of focus and depth of field. There are also some vertical lines seen in the legs of the large dog and the human owner. There is also two scaled boxes one large with the legs in and one small with the small dog in. This alone creates a sense of focus and also differential power.

The image immediately present potential narratives that to me centre around the key element, the small dog  that stares out at the viewer. The small dog is the only subject iinthe image that we see in full. Although we know there is another, much bigger dog and a human in the scene we have limited information about them and we are forced to make some assumptions. It is in making assumptions we the view can construct a narrative.

There is an immediate sense of humour to the image but as I explore the image further it reveals more information. The simplest narrative is one of the family, the human and dog legs linked to the image of the small dog might suggest a family. This idea is simultaneously funny and dark. There is a strong sense of power and or the imbalance of power, the leash on the small dog is a clear signifier of differing power relations with the small do, however cute and central in the image, it is under someones control

The composition through its layers and use of relative sze emphasis this differential sense of power. As a final note the little dog is dressed up. Is this funny or is it demeaning, whose needs are being met by the dog wearing clothes, the dog with it’s own natural fur coat or its owner desire to make the dog appear in a particular way? In this there is something political too about this image. 

Erwitt looks for humour in his human/dog compositions, his framing and cropping and his ability to see the decisive moment reveal  some deeper messages about the human condition, our relationship with dogs and the absurd in the everyday.

I just love this work!!!


Erwitt, E. (2012) Dogs, teNeues, Paris

Can you think of any photographs that are not used as a means of expression communication? Some thoughts

This is very hard! Whether an image is made with artistic, commercial or personal intent it will have some meaning and be about some form of communication to someone. In thinking about the question I though about Eric Kessell’s : Dealing with the flood, the installation illustrating the there volume of images being produced in the world. How many of these images are about expression or communication. At some level all might be?


Prints and Negatives 2013-2016

I also pondered on my significant volume of images made over time. At the time I made an image I had some intention, although using this exercise as an excuse to delve into my archive of photos and negatives a random selection suggests that the original intent was may be lost!

There are of course images made automatically, speed cameras, security cameras, airport x-ray machines, Metallurgical images, engineering ultra sound images, all of the above are about capturing or revealing something, but not communicating a message or representing expression. the list could go on with  other images made for the purpose of capturing information. Do these images communicate some thing, I am unsure. They do reveal information, the the driver breaking the law or the crack in a component, but is this communication? They have a specific purpose which is not a means of expression.

I will ponder further on this though!


Dent, G. (2013) Dealing with the Flood found at: (accessed April 2016)

Reading Photographs- some initial thoughts


I thought I would share some initial thoughts about the opening pages of part 4 of the Context and Narrative course. I have a real interest in Language and a developing interest in semiology and have taken some tentative steps into understanding this whole area with a view to gaining a greater knowledge and understanding of this tenuous and slippery area of visual communication

I also have some working knowledge of language acquisition, semantics and the relationship between the spoken and the written in English. In a previous professional life I worked supporting young people with language acquisition and in particular the development of literacy skills in young people with significant cognitive impairment. I learned much in this work about the plasticity of the rules of verbal communication when in colloquial use. Whist there are some clear and established rules associated with language, in daily use these rules are very malleable. Indeed in practice the conventions of spoken language are subject to regular challenge and change. Belsey’s quote from Alice Through the Looking Glass illustrate this, but in reality, dialect, regional conventions and youth culture al make language far more about interoperation than translation.

If we are looking for some sense of the absolute in language we will perhaps only find it in the clinical sterility of computer and programming languages.

So what does this have to do with reading photographs? Well there is something highly subjective about the interpretation we bring to an image and as suggested in the ‘Death of the Author’ ideas in the previous section, what a photograph means lies somewhere between the makers intent and the viewers biography and perspective.

As I start out in this section o the course the thing that stands out most to me is that although languages written or spoken has complexity, it is serial, it follows and order, particularly written language, which however colloquial and nuanced you start at the beginning and read to end.

With an image I ask myself the question:

Where do you start first?


Belsay, C. (2002) Quouetd in Boothroyd, S.(2015)