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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]

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