The task was to read and reflect on the chapter on Diane Arbus in ‘Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs‘ by Sophie Howarth (2005, London : Tate Publishing.
I felt the essay was quite condescending about the subjects in the image. It is smattered with comments like ‘When you look at this young Brooklyn family about to set out on a Sunday outing, you can’t help wondering what will become of them’, or ‘For all their apparent willingness to look at the camera, the family looked benighted’… In my estimation the family don’t look downtrodden or suffering, despite clearly having a child with disabilities. The father does look tentative and maybe doesn’t enjoy having his photograph taken and yes, the woman clearly is injecting some ‘attitude’ into the image, but I don’t agree that she is wearing the baby like a shield, as suggested in the essay.
I find it interesting how far you can go with personal assumptions when reading a photograph. It’s almost as if the author of the essay categorically believes her assumptions are unequivocally correct, without any shadow of doubt. The reputation that seems to stick to Arbus as her single overriding compulsion in that she enjoys photographing ‘freaks’ or those on the edge of society, has almost given ‘carte blanche’ to the author to exaggerate the intention of Arbus to make them out to be people who we need to feel sorry for but I don’t think this is necessarily the case:-
Arbus’ caption for the image ‘They were undeniably close, in a painful sort of way’ leads the author to immediately jump to the conclusion of a ‘marriage in trouble’ rather than a young couple struggling with the rigours of bringing up two young children, when they themselves are only just into adulthood. I think my response to the image might well be tempered by another image that Arbus took of the couple at their house. This clearly implies that the photographer had a real interest in the family and that some rapport had developed between them. Again the author focuses on the furniture held up by boxes rather than suggesting that this alternative image showed a warmer side to the couple’s relationship – sitting close together on their settee with their kids playing. I do think it seems somewhat unnatural that the children are interacting freely but the adults are not engaging with them, however we do not know what Arbus’ photographic direction was with her subjects. It could have been, ‘Look directly at me, don’t smile’…
Clearly Arbus liked images which showed some ‘edge’ or ‘grit’ to them but I also think that she was interested in the human spirit also. She loved diversity of characters and I think she wanted to stage manage them as her own subjects (which is why so many of her other portraits are strangely stilted).
I think one of the most telling paragraphs in the essay is a quote from Arbus herself, who almost seems to rue the tactics she has to employ to get the best out of her subjects:-
‘We know from accounts given by her friends that Arbus was a very persuasive person, who spoke, as she wrote, quirkily and with great charm. She accused herself of being ‘kind of two-faced’, when photographing people. ‘I’m very ingratiating. It really kind of annoys me. I’m just a little too nice’.
It was an interesting essay to read and provides a lot of ideas about all the different angles you can use when reading photographs.