Research notes – Singular Images

The following notes are made after reading the essay “Diane Arbus: A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, N.Y.C. (1966)”, by Liz Jobey. This was included in the book “Singular Images. Essays on Remarkable Photographs” edited by Sophie Howarth (1).

The essay discusses the photograph A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, N.Y.C. (1966) by Diane Arbus (link)(2). The photograph includes, as its title suggests, a young couple, possibly in their early 20s, dressed up and standing outdoors in the company of their two children, one of which appears to have mental problems. Here are some of my observations:

  • Like in the case of the Judith Williamson essay on an Apple advertisement mentioned in the course guide (link to my comments here), Jobey’s essay does not include any direct reference to her sources, even though she quotes comments from Diane Arbus and various third parties (such as Susan Sontag, John Szarkowsky) extensively. One could infer, from some of the information included late in the essay about the time that had elapsed since Arbus’s death (3), that it was written around 2005, but even this is not explicitly mentioned, which makes it hard sometimes to know if she is writing this essay around the same time the photograph in question was first released to the public, or if the writing is more contemporary. The overall impact of this is a difficulty in assessing the validity of Jobey’s points, or to gain further insight on the subject matter by looking at reference material.
  • The essay opens with some general remarks about how the subjects have been portrayed. There is a general sense of uneasiness in how the subjects look together, but also how they appear individually. The husband appears to be anxious about being photographed whereas the wife looks outside of the frame, as if refusing to engage.
  • Jobey then spends some time in the essay discussing the captions associated with the photograph, which first appeared as a feature in the Sunday Times in 1968. In preparation for the assignment, Arbus wrote to the deputy editor of the magazine in connection with the couple appearing in the photograph. She mentioned that…”They were undeniably close in a painful way”, which was subsequently reinterpreted by the Sunday Times and changed to “…the family is undeniably close in a painful, heartrending sort of way” (4). Jobey considers that the meaning in the two phrases is different and that the former, as written by Arbus, places the emphasis of the pain on the couple, whereas the final print version from the magazine seems to imply that the feeling of pain is now shifted to the photographer. Noting that Arbus was not happy with this reinterpretation, this reminds me of a point I noted earlier in the course about the perils of photo-essays where the photographer no longer is in control of the context in which her pictures are displayed and  the captions that accompany them (see my comment here).
  • More to the point, part of Jobey’s argument in connection with the caption accompanying the photograph (the original remark from Arbus, rather than the revised one from the magazine) was that – in combination with the idea, developed later in the essay, that the camera is unforgiving and we may quite easily end up being portrayed in a way that may be unflattering – the couple ended up “framed” by the whole process and that, independently of reality (which we may never know), from the viewer perspective the couple were “…pinned to the wall and labelled forever” (5).
  • Unlike the case of Williamson’s essay, Jobey seems to have done extensive background research on Arbus, in general and also specifically in the connection with the photograph discussed and other similar images. It is a pity, as mentioned above, that nearly all of this research goes unreferenced, but it does provide an interesting context to understand how the photograph came to happen. This is important because in the context of what was previously mentioned about being “framed” by the picture, one wonders how these people have so easily consented to a stranger taking their picture. Asides from the point, mentioned in the essay that Arbus seem to have had a persuasive, charming way with words, it is implied that by using the attraction of the camera, Arbus was able to gain better access and to scrutinize her subjects in a deceptively less intrusive way than by asking them directly about their lives (6).
  • The attraction of being photographed is rooted in our quest for relevance, vanity and even the hope of fame. In the words of Susan Sontag, mentioned in the essay, “a photograph confers importance on whatever is photographed” (7). But, as pointed out by Arbus herself, quoted in the essay, “…there’s a point between what you want people to know about you and what you can’t help people knowing about you”(8). Which leads to one of the key ideas of the essay: that the picture is not only about the gap between how the individuals in the frame wanted to be perceived and ended up being portrayed, but “about the distance between the ideal and the reality” (9). This seems to be reinforced by the fact that Arbus took another picture of the couple (link), possibly on the same day, inside their apartment in which the couple looks equally uneasy and a book features prominently, on a propped up shelf on the right, titled “Ideal Marriage” (10). One does not know if this was arranged this way by Arbus, but it completes the message of the picture series.

_____________________

  1. Howarth, S., 2005. Singular Images. Essays on Remarkable Photographs. 1st ed. London, United Kingdom: Tate Publishing. Pp 67-76
  2. A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, NYC by Diane Arbus on artnet. 2018. A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, NYC by Diane Arbus on artnet. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.artnet.com/artists/diane-arbus/a-young-brooklyn-family-going-for-a-sunday-outing-qXbTxbMSOTxlWuMUoDPIVg2. [Accessed 19 April 2018].
  3. Howarth, S. Op cit. Pp 73-74
  4. Idem. P 69
  5. Idem. P 68
  6. Idem. Pp 73-74
  7. Idem. P 73
  8. Idem. P 72
  9. Idem. P 74
  10. Idem. P 75
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