Research point: Diane Arbus and Jeff Wall

Diane Arbus:


For this research point I am asked to read and reflect upon Liz Jobey’s essay, Diane Arbus: A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, N.Y.C. (1966).

Jobey describes this image as a ‘contemporary metaphor: the unhappy family snapshot’. This photograph was first published in the London’s Sunday Times magazine and in her short write up on the image, Diane Arbus commented to the magazine’s editor that ‘they were undeniably close in a painful sort of way.’ Jobey questions Arbus’ comment stating that “undeniably’ has a patronising air, as if, in her judgement, under the circumstances, genuine closeness between the couple was impossible.” The magazine editor, changed the text to read ‘the family is undeniably close in a painful, heartrending sort of way’. We know that Arbus complained about this change to her text.

What Jobey sees is that all the family members look uncomfortable. Jobey goes on to denote the way the family looks, drawing our attention to their clothing and the contrasting personalities of the husband and wife, at the same time making some connotations from their stance, gesture and gazes. I denote that the husband is engaged with the photographer, he even manages a slight smile. His wife (I’m making an assumption here), appears disinterested or distracted. She carries the baby in front of her, showing her off to the camera? Their disabled little boy appears unsettled and is looking at something outside the frame – they are all looking in different directions, disconnected.

But does the photographer ever really know what is going on in the minds of their subjects? Arbus considers the following in her book, ‘An Aperture Monograph’; “Our whole guise is like giving a sign to the world to think of us in a certain way but there’s a point between what you want people to know about you and what you can’t help people knowing about you”…..”What I’m trying to describe is that it’s impossible to get out of your skin into somebody else’s. And that’s what all this is a little bit about. That somebody else’s tragedy is not the same as your own”.  The photographer may be more knowledgeable if they know the subject or has engaged in conversation with them. If there is text available to anchor the image, the viewer may well be persuaded to believe what they read, otherwise they reach their own conclusions, based on any number of influences – own experiences, emotions, prejudice or simply believe what they want to believe.

Jobey then offers a little background on Arbus’ photographic experiences, mentioning her ‘freak’ projects and the compositional ways she posed her subjects. She also mentions Arbus ’ struggle with depression and her eventual suicide.  All this information does cloud independent judgement.

Jeff Wall: Insomnia (1994)


As a research point, it is suggested that I read the article Beneath the Surface by OCA tutor, Sharon Boothroyd. In the article Boothroyd demonstrates how to use photographic theory to deconstruct an image. The image in question is Jeff Wall’s  Insomnia.

First the facts. For this image Boothroyd sees a kitchen, denoted by the cooker, fridge freezer and table and chairs. That much is communicated clearly, but this only tells us what is actually there. It doesn’t describe or suggest any possible meaning or emotion. That is down to the connotation, which is of course personal. Boothroyd picks out the cold colours of the cupboards and the starkness of the scene, the harsh lighting giving a kind of eerie feel.  It connotes a place of discomfort and unease which we can sense even though we cannot actually be in that kitchen. Boothroyd explains that this information has been delivered to us via a series of signs and signifiers carefully selected and utilised by the photographer. The design and composition of Wall’s setting leads the eye into and around the frame. The light and shadow create the drama.

My connotation: The gas stove is past its best, the lino on the kitchen floor has definitely seen better days too.  The light in the kitchen is a cold one and although the light is not visible, one would assume there is no shade, just a bare light bulb. The partly opened cupboard doors and the signs of disturbance around the kitchen indicate that the subject may have been searching for something – medication? Something that has been hidden away? Further evidence of this is the positioning of the two chairs, one in particular implies that it was used as a stepping stool to reach the higher cupboards and to check the top of the fridge (evidence of a brown paper bag being rummaged through). Why is the man lying on the cold floor?  He may have fallen or sought protection under the table.  His placement is totally unexpected – the punctum. He has a worried, disturbed look. He could be drunk, mentally ill or frightened.


Arbus, D. ( ). An Aperture Monograph.

Howarth, S. (2005). Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs. Tate Publishing. London.  (Article: Diane Arbus: A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, N.Y.C. 1966’ by Jobey, Liz).