Project 2 Reading pictures – Research Point Diane Arbus

Visit for a blog about Jeff Wall’s, Insomnia (1994), interpreted using some of the tools discussed above.

I read through the blog on the OCA site by Sharon which helped to give a clear example of de-constructing an image with good explanations of denotation and connotation. It was also funny as I referenced that photograph by Jeff Wall in my second assignment! Linking this back to the coursework I would summarise denotation as the meat and bones, the  facts. The connotation I could summarise as the personal taste. A bad analogy as I’m a vegetarian but I think you get the point? Maybe cheese would be a better analogy?

Denotation = the facts

Connotation = mine or the authors subjective interpretation of the above (the facts)

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.

See below.

If you haven’t yet read any of Judith Williamson’s ‘Advertising’ articles (see Introduction), now would be a good time to do so.


Yes, I have already read these at the start of the unit.

Diane Arbus  'A Young Brooklyn Family going for a Sunday Outing NYC' 1966

**Diane Arbus ‘A Young Brooklyn Family going for a Sunday Outing NYC’ 1966

Having read through the chapter on Diane Arbus in ‘Singular Images: Essays on
Remarkable Photographs’ by Sophie Howarth and with reflection on this section of the unit I can see how the essay by Liz Jobey works to de-construct the image using questioning, facts, historical placement and context, denotation and subjective connotation.

To crudely and briefly breakdown the essay I would say the following:

  • Jobey starts by setting the scene in her essay by posing some questions
  • Going on to describe what she sees (denotation) within the image
  • Before applying some interpretation (connotation) to what she is seeing,
  • Then back to denotation again.
  • The essay then turns to placing the photograph within its historical, social and political context in America.
  • Before pulling information from multiple sources to provide background and an objective viewpoint referencing Susan Sontag and John Szarkowski
  • Then bringing together the concluding thoughts in the last para.

There were a couple of points where I felt a personal subjective point of view was coming across in the essay as if her point of view was absolute but overall I felt the essay was very well balanced with information and points of view pulled from a variety of sources. It was very helpful to read the essay.

When I first saw the image by Diane Arbus the immediate thing that struck me was that the father (Richard Dauria) is the only one in the photograph directly looking at me (the observer/the spectator); the mother Marylin, and the children Richard Jnr and baby Dawn are all looking in totally different directions. So my eye is drawn like an arrow straight to the target of the fathers eye and his face. His hair is a scruffy wave a bit like my own when it gets a bit longer. Then I notice is hands, he has the hands of a working man, I observe his coat is slightly frayed and half of his collar is up. From his hands I am then drawn into the father son connection, then back to the sense of protection in the fathers face. The child Richard Jnr, to me, seems happy in the moment, safe in the security of his father.

It is only after this initial engagement that I am then drawn to the mother Marylin, which I find interesting compositionally as I would traditionally read right to left, it feels off, edgy and untraditional but I like it.  I notice the mother has really, really big hair (!) a style of the 1960’s along with the fur jacket. She is good looking. She seems fed up or not interested in the photographer, she has a 1000 yard stare.  I see she is holding the baby Dawn. Looking at the image you could draw a line straight down the centre of the image and they could be two completely different images within their own right, if you cover up one half of the image vertically you can see this. I have very little sense of place except for the title of the image (perhaps the exact reason for the title?).

This was a worthwhile exercise to carry out prior to the written assignment for part four. I have also taken the time to re-read Camera Lucida again by Roland Barthes along with the relevant chapter in Basic Critical Theory for Photographers by Ashley la Grange.

I have also enjoyed discovering the work of Diane Arbus, I like her unconventional and slightly rebellious style. I think some times the composition could be better but she had a real way for capturing the off guarded essence of people.  I do agree in a way with some of the points highlighted in the essay by Susan Sontag about whether the people captured in the images are shown in their best light. Did Diane Arbus use the ‘freak’ avenue as a way to further progress her own career, are these accurate labels to associate with the people she photographed? Maybe she just shined a light, gave a voice to the forgotten elements of society and its for society to decide what to do with that information? Is it really the role of the photographer/artist to come up with all of the conclusions? I think I may be battling the answer to that one for a couple of years!



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