Category Archives: Part 4: Reading photographs

Liz Jobey: A Young Brooklyn Family

We are asked to read and reflect on the chapter on Diane Arbus in Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs by Sophie Howarth.

In the chapter, Liz Jobey presents a comprehensive analysis of the Diane Arbus photo A Young Brooklyn Family Going for a Sunday Outing, N.Y.C. 1966 along with a great deal of background material from interviews with Diane Arbus and from her writings.

The article is long and delves into quite a lot of detail about Arbus’s life as background for making hypotheses about why she did what she did. The tone is unforgiving and quite harsh with the overall implication somewhat along the lines of Sontag – that Arbus was after something sensationalistic. [Interestingly, the name “Arbus” appears 44 times in Sontag’s book On Photography, suggesting that Sontag had a special degree of dislike for Arbus.]

At the end of the article, I felt I had learned more about Jobey’s own world view than I did about the motivations of Diane Arbus and of the family who posed for her. As an example of deconstruction, it is probably exemplary, but after pulling everything apart, it seems to me that Jobey has trouble reassembling the pieces in a way that doesn’t seem like an extended complaint.




Exercise: deconstruction


Rip out an advertising image from a newspaper supplement and circle and write on as many parts of the image as you can. Comment on what it is, what it says about the product and why you think it’s there. You could use this as the basis for your assignment if you feel it’s taking you somewhere interesting. Or you could adopt this method for your assignment preparation.


Glenfiddich advertising from Cigar Aficionado magazine

The image I selected was from an eMagazine that I subscribe to. This particular magazine has a strong “lifestyle” orientation in its advertising, so this seemed to be a good approach.

In terms of overall context, the image is full-page, on the right-hand side of a standard double-page spread. The right-hand side is generally preferable for western audiences due to our left–to-right writing system, which generally means that we “pick up” more quickly on images on the right-hand side (see here). This kind of premium placement also suggests a premium product because advertising costs are considerably higher on this side.

The colours used are eye-catching with a strong emphasis on the bottle, and with complementary colours all around. The largest, dark-golden, text has a colour very similar to many India Pale Ales (more on this later).

There is a great deal of text on the page, mostly acting as anchor-text, describing various aspects of the preparation. The product is plainly a whisky, however the process used was a little unusual – apparently the company brewed their own “craft” beer to season the oak casks used to mature the whisky. The text supports the beer connection with images of hops and labels such as “zesty and hoppy”. On the bottle itself, there is also quite a lot of text, but the message is a little mixed. In the centre of the bottle, right where we’d expect to see a label describing the contents, we see not the brand name, nor even that it’s a whisky, but the text “Finished in India Pale Ale Casks”.  It’s not until we look towards the bottom of the bottle that we decide that it is in fact a whisky from the Glenfiddich company.

On the lower-left side, we see the text “Experiment #01” which is echoed further down in the text which reassures us that the this is the first release in the Glenfiddich Experimental Series, however the implication of “Experiment #01” is “we got it right first time” and now as consumers, it’s up to us to enjoy the result. It would be an entirely different interpretation if it was “Experiment #2403”.

On the lower-right side we see the text “Craft Brewer” along with an image of a bottle cap typically found on a beer bottle. The craft beer industry in the United States (the primary audience for this particular magazine) has exploded over recent decades and is now estimated as having a retail worth of approximately $23bn (see here). The growth of this market sector is potentially an interesting “hook” for new products by association. We have no idea of whether the Glenfiddich beer used to season the casks was actually very good, but just by association we (or at least American audiences) may assume that any product associated with the craft beer industry must also be good.

In conclusion, although it becomes clear that we’re talking about a whisky, the message is confused about the linkage between the two products (beer and whisky). Many whisky producers age their premium products in barrels from other regions – sherry being a common example, and even bourbon on occasion. However, the association with beer is much less common and perhaps even innovative. The strap-line at the bottom of the page says that the product is “designed to push boundaries and create the unexpected”. This may be true, but I suggest that the overall effect is one of confusion.



Exercise: Elliot Erwitt’s New York, 1974

In this exercise, we are asked to look carefully at Erwitt’s image and write some notes about how the subject matter is placed within the frame. How has Erwitt structured this image? What do you think the image is ‘saying’? How does the structure contribute to this meaning?

Elliot Erwitt: New York, 1974

Due to the careful positioning of the small dog and the eye-catching hat, the eyes are first drawn to this part of the image. The fact that the far left set of (fore)legs plainly belong to a much bigger dog is only noticed after a time. The small dog’s head is positioned quite precisely to draw our attention: at the mid-point of the frame vertically and approximately a 1/3 of the way across the frame from the right-hand side. The boots of the assumed owner (quite possibly a woman) are positioned centrally and the legs of the larger dog are positioned in the left-hand third with careful cropping to exclude the rear legs which would have made the joke much less effective. The overall effect is of across the horizontal axis, helped by the line of the lead to the smaller dog adding some “weight” on that side of the image. The camera viewpoint is very low – at dog’s eye-level we could say. We can imagine Erwitt holding his beloved Leica almost on the ground to achieve the shot.

The cropping of this image is critical to the joke and to the impact. Taken further back, at full height, we could imagine a woman with two dogs and the power would be completely lost. By getting closer, the joke is complete.