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Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs – Diane Arbus

Read and reflect upon the chapter on Diane Arbus in Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs by Sophie Howarth (2005, London: Tate Publishing). (OCA C&N, p104)

In her essay, Liz Jobey analyses Diane Arbus’ photo, A young Brookland family going for a Sunday outing N.Y.C (1966). The photo is shown as the featured image to this post (source: christies.com). Here I reflect upon Jobey’s approach to the analysis, rather than summarise her essay.

Jobey begins by considering what the story of the family might be, and mentions how she is drawn to seek parallels in other art forms she has experienced (intertextuality). She also considers the story of how they became to be photographed – the story of the story.

She moves onto to consider what is denoted in the photograph (the positioning, the physical relationships, the body-language, the clothes and the expression) and possible interpretations or connotations of the image (for example the woman is trying to preserve the style of her prime, though it is already passing).

Jobey reflects on the image in the broader context of the family snapshot – how does it compare to typical images that form that genre. She taps into the apparent emotional state of the subjects, an ‘unhappy family snapshot’ and references Arbus’s own words, ‘They were undeniably close in a painful sort of way’.

Next Jobey moves beyond her impressions of the photograph to discuss additional context (presumably from her research) gleaned from correspondence between Arbus and the deputy editor of the Sunday Times, who was using the image as a feature. This information provides us with some facts about the subjects to allow us to validate or adapt our reading of the image.

Arbus herself and the context of Arbus’s other work then becomes the focus of Jobey’s analysis. This is supported by quotations from Arbus and others (eg Szarkowski). It is an exploration and questioning of Arbus’s intentions for her work. In this analysis, the disturbing nature of Arbus’s work is discussed and Sontag referenced to support the discussion.

There is then an analysis of the sociological context, with Arbus being ‘part of a generation of liberal Americans that was casting doubt on post-war optimism’. For this aspect, Tobey again references other artists of the time. Tobey asserts that Arbus valued ‘freaks’ because they managed to survive outside the traditional society, that was becoming a source of alienation for Arbus and her contemporaries.

Tobey finishes with a powerful conclusion about the image:

It was an ordinary Sunday afternoon like any other. But her portrait tells otherwise; its power comes from the ordinariness they refute.

The essay provides an insight into the breadth and depth of research than can be brought to bear on a single image and its context. It illustrates the value in taking multiple perspectives when reading an image and while there are no definitive readings, the possibilities can be enthralling.


Howarth, S. (2005) Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs. London: Tate Publishing. Extract on Diane Arbus by Liz Jobey. Available from: http://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/ph4can_singular_images.pdf [last accessed 27.3.16]

Ex – advertising image

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 … (OCA C&N, p 101)

click to view larger image.

Ad from British Horse Society Magazine
Ad from British Horse Society Magazine

Drawing on this ad helped me to better read it – note taking for images? The ad is for horse wormers – horses can be delicate creatures and worms can have serious consequences. Observations:

  • The main element is a trojan horse, connoting war and hidden danger. War echoes the call to ACT NOW (urgency) against worms (the hidden danger).
  • The ad is visually well-balanced – I see 1/3rd and 3s throughout; in dividing the textual information and the image areas; between the ground and the sky; and in the vertical alignment of elements. It has a clean, organised feel.
  • The diagonal line of the horse’s back directs the eye to the brand name of the product.
  • The image moves from dark, threatening skies, through ACT NOW, and lighter, calmer scene in the foreground, underpinned by the product information. Things were bad, but if we use the product, everything will be okay.
  • The icons illustrating the action steps for the product provide a bridge between the image and the text – helping the eye transition between the two parts of the ad.

Ex – Erwitt

… look carefully at Erwitt’s image [ see below] 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? (OCA C&N, p98)

Source: holdenluntz.com,
Source: holdenluntz.com, by Elliot Erwitt
  • There is a strong sense of threes in the image: the horizontal scene is split between the foreground, which shows details of the ground and fallen leaves; the mid-ground which is nearly burnt out to white and contrasting with the subjects; and the background hints at the broader setting of a park with trees and sunlight. On the vertical we have three subjects placed in the frame as a group; 3 sets of legs and placed on the second third of the horizontal scene, firmly in the frame.
  • Full shades of monochrome are represented, from white in the background and in contrast to the subjects to the black of the lady’s boots. Giving the sense of a complete image.
  • There are 3 pairs – so within the 3s there is another level of symmetry in 2s.
  • There is a strong depiction of scale – from very large (dog), through standard sized (human), to small dog.
  • The stand-out feature (or punctum if we must) is that the small dog is wearing a hat. This is not usual by most standards.

The image speaks about the companionship between woman and dog and differences among friends. It shows togetherness, while being different. It is topped off by the absurdity of the small dog wearing a hat. The symmetry and balance in form of the composition echo the signs of togetherness I read in the subjects themselves.