BA Phot

C&N Part 4: Reading photographs

Page 2c - Research point


Project 1 The language of photography - Exc. 4.1 - Project 2 - Reading pictures - Exc. 4.2 - Research point - Upsum

Arbus - Barthes - Derrida - Erwitt - Wall - Conclusion - Referencing

Research point

Visit [accessed 24/02/14] for a blog about Jeff Wall’s, Insomnia (1994), interpreted using some of the tools discussed above.
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.
If you haven’t yet read any of Judith Williamson’s ‘Advertising’ articles (see Introduction), now would be a good time to do so. See: C&N [Boothroyd p. 104]

Jeff Wall, Insomnia, 1994 Diane Arbus, A young Brooklyn...
Box A
1. Jeff Wall, Insomnia, 1994
2. Diane Arbus, A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, N.Y.C., 1966
© the artists, their agents or their estates

[spellchecked  ]

[29Mar, [p.104]] Judith Williamson is covered in the course Preamble.

As student Sharon's 2012 essay [i] on Wall's Insomnia is given as an as exemplar, I will examine its structure.

I enjoyed the essay as quite informative on first reading but on closer reading, when writing the above, I found it rather superficial, aiming to hit the target buzzwords of semiotics without offering much insight into the image.

Conclusions - look at the objective aspects; find quotes from the artist on the particular work or their general approach;examine aspects amenable to subjective interpretation and speculate on why the artist chose to include them; look at the piece in the wider context of the artists work, how it might relate to other artists and other art forms. Deploy the appropriate technical terms.

Liz Jobey's essay on Diane Arbus' A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, N.Y.C., 1966, published in Howarth (2005) pp.65-76.

Box B
Arbus, The Bronx home of
a young Brooklyn family, 1966

In this 9-page essay, Jobey does not mention until the third page the known facts about this family. I had the impression that her harsh judgments on the couple were pure speculation and, as such, were rather unkind. That the essay begins with the sentence, '[t]he fictions we make about photographs are as unreliable as they are unavoidable' only reinforced my incorrect impression.

Jobey (eventually) reveals quite a lot of the family history, including that they married when the wife was 16, that the young son pictured (one of thee) has mental health problems and that Arbus also photographed them in their home (fig. B1). The photograph was published in the Sunday Times in 1968 accompanied by brief text supplied by Arbus but edited by the newspaper. Jobey describes the text as 'patronising', which is rich, given the nature of her own comments.

Jobey describes the 1967 MoMA New Documents exhibition, comprising Arbus, Winogrand and Friedlander as resulting in 'welcome public recognition', but also as coming too early in her career (according to Szarkowski) because Arbus was still developing her style and subject matter. In the early 1960s, Arbus tended to concentrate on society's outsiders (sometimes described at the time as 'freaks'), but by this period had moved to somewhat more conventional, but still noticeable (often uneasy or in some way frail) subjects. She suggests that these interests are rooted in Arbus's own troubled family history. Jobey quotes Sontag's suggestion that Arbus lived a more vivid vicarious life than her own through her subjects, but also quotes Szarkowski's contrary view that Arbus' aim was to reveal the truth of her subjects sympathetically. Salkend (2018, p.105) observes, 'some see them as profoundly empathetic … while others see Arbus as a cruel exploiter of her subjects' innocence'.

At the end of the essay, Jobey considers what happened after Arbus' suicide in 1971, the secretive estate, tightly controlled by her daughters for 30 years until the 2003 exhibition, Revelations aptly named because it released a wealth of documentation and working papers, giving new insights to Arbus' working methods. It is with the advantage of these that Jobey can write about Arbus the person and the photographer, but the book of the exhibition (Arbus, 2003) has little to say on this particular image. The photograph is reproduced presented early and large (pp.8-9) and there is a small print of the couple at home on page 181 with the text (in capitals),

The May 15 [1966] page of Diane's appointment book records her visit to the Bronx home of a young Brooklyn family (p. 8), where she takes the picture. They were undeniably close in a painful sort of way, she recalls in a 1968 letter Arbus, Revelations [iii], p.181

The index contains four references to the image in addition to the reproduction of the two photographs,

This, then, is the documentation available to Jobey, as cited in the essay.

Jobey's essay is quite informative on Arbus' brief lifetime and career and its aftermath but, to my mind, she reads far too much into the image: she is, of course, quite entitled to her interpretation, but it is only conjecture.
She quotes diverging opinions on Arbus' approach to her subjects but does not make any personal judgment of the work: but she passes judgment on the family, almost invariably negative - on their marriage, their dress sense, their children, their likely future, even the direction in which they choose to look when being photographed. It is a remarkably unkind piece of writing.

Final thoughts

[Apr01] While I accept the denoted / connoted distinction, this approach has a large gap. That is the background information that is covered by Terry Barrett's context definitions explored in EyV and which I summarised as,

internal context — picture, title, date and maker
external context — the presentational environment
original context — the causal environment: the location, circumstances and intention of the maker.

Barrett is missing the viewers' perspectives. Put it all together and we are gradually getting closer to a methodology. I try to assemble a growing list of approaches here.



Research point - Local References

(i) Sharon (2012) Beneath the Surface [online]. Available from [Accessed 29th March 2020].

Page created 22-Feb-2020 | Page updated 23-Sep-2020