Category Archives: Research points part 4 (reading photographs)

Research point: Diane Arbus in Singular Images (page 104)

Diane Arbus

The brief is to ‘reflect upon the chapter on Diane Arbus in Singular Images: Essays on remarkable Photographs by Sophie Howarth’ (2005, London: Tate Publishing).

Liz Jobey’s essay refers to the image available here:  A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, N.Y.C. 1966  by Diane Arbus. I decided to reflect on this essay, both for its analysis of the image and for its construction.

The essay title

I have read Jobey’s essay in conjunction with the OCA’s guide to ‘Academic Essay Writing’. Page 6 of this guide refers to ‘choosing your essay title’ so I considered the title of Jobey’s essay; ‘A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, N.Y.C. 1966’. Like the guide suggests, Jobey’s title has a clear focus to steer the essay. The family, the occasion, the place and the year are all contained in the title giving us a clear indication of the nature of the image and the scope of the essay.

The opening sentence to grab the reader’s attention

I am a big fan, from my literature days, of opening lines, and it is the first thing I go to when choosing a new novel; not the summary at the back, nor the review in the bookshop, nor recommendation from a friend. It is the opening line, always. If the first sentence doesn’t engage me then I don’t buy the book. Similarly in an essay, the opening words should capture the reader’s attention. Jobey does this with her first sentence ‘The fictions we make about photographs are as unreliable as they are avoidable’. (OCA, 2018). She is acknowledging that, when looking at an image, we cant help but make judgements … and they are just that, fictions, not facts.

The Introduction

The OCA guide states that this should only be a paragraph or so but ‘it needs to do quite a lot’. In the introduction we need to explain what we are about to do and how we are going to do it. In Jobey’s essay on Diane Arbus’ image, she introduces the concept of ordinary people and what will happen to them? She asks the question of the Brooklyn family, ‘ why do we assume they are victims’?

The middle

This part of the essay is where the argument is developed and in Jobey’s case is where she  goes on to answer her own question as to why we pity this family. She says that we pity them because of the way they look. She uses the unusual term ‘ benighted’ by which she means undedicated and uncouth. I actually hate her for this. Who is she to stand in such a position of moral self righteousness? She continues by describing the lady as past her prime and refers to her ‘leatherette’ handbag and her ‘bland white baby’ (OCA, 2018), both disparaging terms. I think that these comments actually say far more about Liz Jobey that they do about the Brooklyn family. I don’t appreciate her way of including me in her observations either, ‘why do we assume they are victims at all’? There is no ‘we ‘when it comes to interpreting this image. I am forced to acknowledge here the concept of each different viewer bringing his or her own experience to a photograph and acknowledging that every one of us will interpret a photograph differently. 

Jobey continues by presenting this image as an ‘unhappy family snapshot’  and suggests that it has subverted the positive values that are traditionally inherent in the family snapshot genre.

Moving on

Later in the essay we learn some of the facts. The family members have names. Richard, Marylyn, Richard Jnr. and baby Dawn. We learn some of the facts of their situation such as that they were married as teenagers, have three children, he is a car mechanic and she dies her hair black in the style of Elizabeth Taylor. We now have a degree of context in order to inform our interpretation.

Later paragraphs

Jobey goes on to tell us of some of Arbus’s other work and how she has concentrated on taking portraits of people ‘living on the margins of society’ (ibid). In her images, like this one of the Brooklyn family, her subjects were ‘shot as three-quarter figures, with little surrounding detail’ with the people looking ‘straight back at the camera’. Jobey says that this was unsettling in both its passivity and its wilful surrender to the act of being photographed’ (ibid).

Jobey says of the image that there is a disturbing feeling ‘that the couple have been trapped’ into agreeing to be photographed and the outcome is an irony where the couple (perhaps the lady in particular) was far removed in appearance to how she ‘intended to look’ (ibid). Again, a comment that I find disparaging for its obvious sense of superior judgement by Jobey but she has explained her viewpoint through a deconstruction of the image and her viewpoint is obviously valid.

The conclusion

Jobey says that Arbus didn’t ‘feel it her duty to provide Richard and Marylyn Dauria with a photograph that reassured them they were just another happy American family’. Her images endorse her mission that ordinary people were valued despite not being mainstream.

My opinion

I was irritated by the author’s moral high ground and snobbery about the family and that some of the words are offensive; but we have to remember that they may have been more acceptable at the time of writing.

I do consider this essay to be a valuable example of deconstruction but I am aware that people can form different ideas about the same images. For example, the dad gently holding his little  boy’s hand and the couple making an effort to go out to visit family on a Sunday; the nicely dressed little boy and their ‘togetherness’ from a very young age. Why doesn’t this show a unity and commitment rather than a young couple ‘close in a painful sort of way’ (ibid).


Jobey, L. (2005). A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing , N.Y.C. 1966. In S. Howarth (Ed.), Singular Images: Essays on remarkable photographs (pp. 67-76). London: Tate Publishing.

OCA, (2018). [online] Available at: [Accessed 16 Feb. 2018].


Research point: Jeff Wall’s Insomnia (page 104)

Jeff Wall’s Insomnia

This link is to a post by Sharon Boothroyd titled, ‘Beneath the Surface’ about interpreting  Jeff Wall’s Insomnia, (1994)

Insomnia, 1994 by Jeff Wall

(WeAreOCA, 2018)

Sharon Boothroyd says of this image that ‘for this image I see a kitchen, denoted by the cooker, fridge freezer and table and chairs’. (WeAreOCA. 2018). So, the use of kitchen appliances, kitchen table and cupboards clearly signifies a domestic kitchen. However, there is more to the image than its literal translation as we are led, by the starkness, harsh lighting, dark shadowy corners and cold colours to interpret this kitchen as functional, a bit unsettling, depressing and unwelcoming even ignoring the fact that a grown man is sleeping under the table.

If I had not seen the title ‘Insomnia’ I don’t think I would have interpreted this image as such. At first I thought of drunkenness, or collapse. Realistically though, a person cannot collapse underneath a table; the man has purposely got himself in this position. I now think of a man who, not being able to sleep upstairs, wanders down into his kitchen in search of a snack, and in desperation and distress tries to get comfortable on the floor, or is he seeking a ‘safe’ place? I feel that he is suffering mentally or emotionally and is troubled by something; anxiety or panic maybe.

Continuing with my interpretation, I notice that not only is this kitchen dated and neglected (carpet and walls) and there are no items of comfort or luxury, but it gives a sense of being without a family (bare walls, no curtains, no handbag hanging over the chair no fridge magnets holding a child’s school drawings). The view from the window is of bricks which makes the room cell-like – no way out and no visitors in. This man is alone, lonely.

In my interpretation of this image I bring my own cultural expectations and my own experience, and as I have never seen anyone lying under a kitchen table like this before, I necessarily think that this scene is odd. It is odd enough for me to wonder what happened to bring this man to this situation, and what is going to happen next. If he had been sitting at the table drinking a coffee then I would not have held this same curiosity.

There seems to be some particularly staged elements to this image; the tea towel on the chair the salt cellar on the table and the paper bag on top of the fridge as though they are clues to his state of mind. They are basic items, ugly, functional.



Boothroyd S (2014) Context and Narrative. Open College of the Arts.

WeAreOCA. (2018). Beneath the surface. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Feb. 2018].