Singular Images: Essays on remarkable photographs

In Sophie Howarth’s, Singular Images: Essays on remarkable photographs (2005, London: Tate Publishing), I read the chapter of an Essay by Liz Jobey of Diane Arbus’, A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing.

Jobey’s initial approach is to draw parallels between Arbus’ work and the work of other artist using different mediums, for instance, Raymond Carvers stories of ordinary people with flawed fates.  Using this idea as a spring board Jobey found her introduction into a comprehensive analysis of an assuming ill fated family.

Using French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s base model for the Deconstruction of a photograph: Essentially, in order to fully comprehend how something has been made, you have to take it apart before you can put it back together; Jobey sets about doing exactly that.

Whilst reading the essay the first thing that strikes me is how accurately Roland Barthes use of semiotics come across from beginning to end although not in the clinical way I approach things.

Jobey begins by questioning the motives of the subjects ‘why did they agree to be photographed?’, ‘Will they fight, separate, divorce, marry other people?’, ‘Will they die an early death?’.  A lot of assumptions have been made purely based on the look of these people, however this is recognised as our natural reaction to judge people based their appearance.  I like how Jobey is questioning the viewers reaction to the photograph taking us out of the realms of what sits within the frame.

Following this is a description of the photograph (signifier) itself ‘the leopard skin coat, the leatherette handbag, the camera case, her wedding ring’ etc.  Different viewers will pick out different things from the photograph and Jobey certainly mentioned things that I didn’t see.  She mentions the boy grabbing his crotch and the mum mimicking this behaviour with the baby.  These parallels are looking deeper into the photograph than a first glance.

Jobey then continues to interpret what she sees in the photograph, a down trodden family with problems who may not even be together for much longer.  A woman who’s past her sell by date and a man who’s gripped with anxiety (Signified).  None of this may be true however, it’s what Jobey interprets the image as signifying.

Jobey goes on to work her way through Roland Barthes theories of semiotics in photography using Denotation, connotation, punctum, stadium and intertexuality describing the elements of the photograph, theorising on what they mean and making assumptions on cultural, political and social standings.  Also drawing on her own experiences to interpret the photograph in the way she has leads me to believe she is of quite a negative mind, assuming that alls not well and the people in the photograph are poor and living difficult lives.  The way we see things is dictated by our own culture and background and by the experiences we have throughout our lives.


Wells, L. (2015) Photography A critical Introduction. London: Routledge.



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