The essay is by Liz Jobey and can be accessed via the OCA website here – https://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/ph4can_singular_images.pdf
This essay gives me a feeling of discomfort which grows as I read through it. The first line gave me food for thought: “The fictions we make about photographs are as unreliable as they are unavoidable”. I bear as much responsibility for my responses to work, if not more, as the intentions of the person who made the work.
An issue for me here is the series of removes from the original work. Arbus made the work, and wrote about it in a letter to the deputy editor of the Sunday Times. He reworded the letter slightly. Now we have Jobey’s essay layered over the top, and my reading of that on top of that, and now my writing about it too, a new shade of interpretation being introduced at each level. There is an undeniable difference between Arbus’ words “They were undeniably close in a painful sort of way” and the printed “…and the family is undeniably close in a painful, heartrending sort of way.” And there I was thinking that the finer details of semantics were restricted to the image. I think the change in text does move the “pain” of the situation from the family in the photograph to the viewer of the photograph.
I wonder if, in the transition from looking at Arbus’ photographs of “freaks” to her photographs of families, we perceive the families though the same expectation filter as the freaks, almost as if we know that if it’s an Arbus photograph there must be something out of the ordinary about it, and possibly not a happy out of the ordinary either. I’m slightly uncomfortable about the gaze in these images too. Arbus was from a white Jewish privileged background, and she chose to photograph “under the bar of success, celebrity and social ease”. This is probably more of a general comment rooted in curiosity, but were the only people with cameras white privileged ones? No, of course not. Or were they the only people to get their work shown? Or was Arbus the only one making this sort of work? Where are the Polaroids, the vernacular record made by the people themselves? What would the Daurias’ own family album show? Would the Arbus photograph be in there? This is a similar unease to that I felt when watching the Greatest Showman – all these “freaks” collected and merchandised as circus by a non-freaky white man and his non-freaky high-culture white male side-kick. I keep coming back to ideas of self, other and representation and perhaps the need to explore this further at Level 2.