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).



Exercise: Deconstruction of an advertising image.

Deconstruction of an advertising image.

We live in a consumer society and are surrounded by marketing, publicity and advertising. On television, in the media, billboards, online, pushed through letter boxes etc. All vying for our attention in the hope that we will be drawn in and captured under their spell. Judith Williamson says in the introduction of her book “Decoding Advertisements”;
“Advertisements’ role is to attach meanings to products, to create identities for the goods (and service providers) they promote: a process today described as branding”.  (p.13)

p1120946What is it? This was taken from the Daily Mail weekend supplement in early October.  It is a full-page advert for ‘Multiyork’ sofas and interiors. The advert is promoting “up to 40% off” and “order now for Christmas”.



First of all I looked closely at the image itself.  What draws me in is the simplistic styling with neutral hues that are easy on the eye. Then the roaring fire offers warmth as do the hints of gold, lighting and candles. The anchor is the 40% off message and the relay is quality furnishings, something new for Christmas. The picture shows a lounge set in what appears to be a period style house, maybe a listed building with its tall multi paned sash windows, marble fireplace, high ceiling. The floor is constructed of wide wooden boards, the walls are painted in neutral shades. Shades of grey dominate the sofa, chair and rug with coordinating soft furnishings. The room is adorned with expensive looking accessories and exclusive, on trend works of art. Next to the sofa is a small table with more decorative vases and candle holders. There is a gold coloured metal waste basket utilised as a newspaper/magazine rack. The ‘basket’ is resting on a collection of glossy ‘coffee table’ books, another book lies in juxtaposition on the sofa. Next to the chair is a tray holding a gold effect coffee pot and elegant cup and saucer – not something that would present in the average home!
Referring to Judith Williamson’s ideology  of connecting an object with an object; the golds all link together to form a triangle – coffee pot, basket, lamp and tray on the mantle piece. The golden glow of the fire ties it all together. The only links to our ordinary world are portrayed by the view through the window to the familiar nature of outside world and the comfort of the fire. We are transported into the ideal world of luxury as the eye picks up the gold tones and the comfort message from the furnishings and fireplace. The brand name lettering is also gold.
What does it say about the product? For me the image evokes opulence and quality. The artwork, ornaments and the gold coloured objects imply these products are for the discerning customer.  It speaks of cosiness, comfort and luxury. The wording at the bottom of the advert implies that it may be affordable thanks to the “up to” 40% off and tempts us with the opportunity to have a new sofa in time for Christmas.

Williamson, J. (2010). Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising. Marion Boyars. London.





Exercise: Elliott Erwitt

Elliott Erwitt

“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”


Elliott Erwitt. New York. 1974. Felix, Gladys and Rover

  • How has Erwitt structured this image?
    This image was taken from a very low perspective showing a cropped view. The vertical design elements are strong – the three sets of legs, the little dog’s lead, the tree trunk. Cleverly composed to exclude the large dog’s hind legs, at first glance I assumed it was two humans and a dog. The angle captures the little dog’s gaze perfectly forcing the viewer to look at it and just in case you miss it the first time the dog lead directs the eye straight to it! Erwitt has centred the subjects and focused using a shallow depth of field to blur out the background, adding a sense of depth to the image. The effect is 3D. I note the contrast is very sharp, whether the scene is staged or found is unknown.
  • What do you think the image is saying?
    The image draws the viewer to the little dog sporting a hat, telling me this dog is important and saying “look at me!” Its an old dog with greying hair and gives a sense that it is much loved and protected – identified by the coat and hat. He is not just a dog, but a family member. I wonder whether the larger dog also wears a hat and coat? The fact that the majority of the person and the other dog are cropped out of the frame implies that they are secondary to the intent.  For me it says small is beautiful, or just because the other companions are big, it doesn’t mean they are the best. It could also imply attention seeking. The image tells me it is a wet day, autumn (leaves on the ground), possibly cold too – the dog’s hat and the person’s long boots and thick coat. The dog ‘owner’ may be walking the dogs because the background gives us enough to imply a countryside or park location.
  •  How does the structure contribute to the meaning?  The image initially creates confusion and doubt as to what we are looking at. It is very funny and poignant.  It arouses curiosity because one cannot see the bigger picture. The image also gives us a sense of the photographer’s liking for dogs, or perhaps just his sense of humour. It may say more about the photographer and his outlook on the world.

I enjoyed looking at this image, exploring and interpreting. Our local veterinary clinic has this book in the waiting area for others to enjoy.  In his book ‘DogDogs’ (1995), Erwitt explains his images “are not pictures of dogs but pictures with dogs in them”.