Howarth on Arbus–The Dauria Family


Howarth begins her piece by observing that “the fictions we make about photographs are as unreliable as they are unavoidable”. That would pertain to a certain class of photograph – probably not those we take ourselves, since we witness the event and are aware of the immediate circumstances as well as a great deal of background. The class of image to which this assertion most aptly applies is one which was taken by another person, who we don’t know, of other people with whom we are similarly unacquainted, some time ago and in a place unfamiliar to us. Most photographs, then.

It’s interesting to ponder why this (the Richard and Marylin Dauria) photograph is Remarkable. On its own it is utterly unremarkable. It has very little to commend it from a compositional or formal perspective. Since we don’t know the subjects we have no connection with them. They aren’t doing anything unusual let alone remarkable. The image itself is little more than a snapshot. But when the associated threads are drawn in, this photograph becomes remarkable, not for what it is but rather for what it represents. This is not inherent in the contents of the frame – it’s all happening way outside the bounds of the image. It is an Arbus image – although we know this by external authority rather than comparison – and her history provides a loaded vein of contextual ore. Her family history, her upbringing, relationships, utterances and entire body of work are all held to be remarkable; this image is rich in Arbus even if is poor in most other ways.

As a subject for academic and artistic discourse Arbus offers excellent value. Her subjects, her approach to them and their reactions to her are characterised by her avowed fascination with difference, a challenging matter in her time. She depicts her subjects in artless happenstance, in ‘just stand over there’ positions. The very blankness of their demeanour allows a wide range of characteristics and emotions to be projected upon them and Howarth enthusiastically seizes the opportunity. Undeterred by an almost total lack of credible information about this little family, she embarks on an elaborate speculation of their inner feelings, motivations and circumstances; the fictions she makes are indeed unreliable.

Diane Arbus was a committed and skilful practitioner who produced a considerable body of work, in a style which was novel at the time. The work has endured partly because of the cohesiveness which resulted from her process and partly because it is very much ‘of its time’.  Her inclusion of life’s unfortunates often provides a focus for morbid fascination.

Sometimes an image is illuminated by context, be it that of the photographer or the subject.  This is the case with many of Arbus’ images – the background amplifies the image content in a persuasive manner.  That’s one viewpoint.  Another might be that the photographs are singularly eloquent and need no elaboration.  They are not enjoyable images, yet they are compelling.  She allows a degree of grace to her subjects and we do not see them as demeaned by her presence, nor by the process of photography.  The extent to which they are diminished is due largely to our own, the viewer’s prejudices.