Two things stand out for me in the photograph and essay by Liz Jobey in Howarth (2005).
Firstly the stance/pose of the family looks very uncomfortable, to me best summed up by Jobey calling it “a contemporary metaphor; the unhappy family snapshot”. At a time when most people smile or pose extravagantly for the camera, this photo stands out. A very detailed analysis of the photo is provided by Jobey, but I was intrigued by what Arbus was trying to portray – does she try to portray the ‘unhappy family’, has she tried to provoke it or has she spotted what was already there and is emphasising it?
Again this is summed up when Jobey said that this photo ‘raised questions, not often raised so worriedly in photography, about the nature of the encounter and the motivation of the person behind it’. To what degree are the family exploited by Arbus’ desire to produce an arresting image, is this how they would normally pose for such a photo or were they instructed in how to pose? To what extent is this a true portrayal of their family circumstances or are they just unpaid models carrying out the instructions of the photographer? Is this an attempt by the photographer to portray how she saw a scene before her or is it an attempt to construct a scene to produce an image already in the mind of the photographer?
The second point that interested me was the interaction between text and image.
Talking about the family, Arbus said “They were undeniably close, in a painful sort of way”.
Later the Deputy Editor of the magazine wrote of the family “Richard Jnr. is mentally retarded and the family is undeniably close in a painful, heartrending sort of way”.
Depending on which of these two texts accompanies the image, one’s reading of it can differ considerably. As Jobey states for the second text “The feeling of pain has shifted from the couple to the photographer”. It is fascinating how the insertion of the single extra word ‘heartrending’ and an explanation of the young boys mental health will fundamentally change how one views both the photograph and the photographer.
Howarth, S. (2005) Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs. London: Tate Publishing