Today I am starting a new series on my blog. I intend to take a closer look at iconic photographs, and write 1000 words about each. I hope to do this once a week, not only as a writing exercise, or a stab at more formal photo criticism, but also to give my mind and my eyes time to really study the images that have resonated for me personally for most of my photographic life.
I start with this powerful image by Dianne Arbus, “Child With Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, 1962.” What do I see? A black and white photograph. The main subject is set slightly off from the center of the frame. There is shallow depth of field. There is slight fog along the left-hand edge of the film. There is a dapple of tree and leaf shadow spreading out on the ground around the young boy. Two trees sit behind the boy, mimicking the boy’s suspenders. A soft figure stands behind the boy. A stranger? His mother? Another woman walks with a small child further down the path, wandering unknowingly into a moment in photo history. The boy’s forward foot sits just inside the bottom of the framing, and is close to a wooden ice cream spoon sitting on the ground, the kind they used to include in Italian ice, probably sold by a vendor in the park.
Now, studying the boy himself. His sneakers are beat up, and tied haphazardly. His socks are bunched up around his ankles. His knees are dirty. His shorts held up with a pair of suspenders, but one strap hangs off his shoulder, down around his elbow. His shirt has a pattern of emblems, but to my eye they resemble fingerprints. His one hand holds a toy hand grenade, and his other hand is empty, but looks like it is gripping an imaginary object, or is atrophied for some reason. Or is the boy suffering from so kind of muscle disease? We gaze upon his face, which looks disturbed, not frightened, but haunted and haunting. His mouth forms a grimace. His eyes, dark pools. His hair, slightly messy, maybe outgrown from a bowl cut.
Why did Arbus take this photograph? I think it is obvious that the young boy makes for a striking subject. He falls well within the oeuvre we have now come to know from the masterful photographer. He seems alone in the world. His body language and appearance is a mix of fright, anxiety, and mental unease. The loose suspender further conveys a feeling of instability in the subject matter. He is playing with a very realistic looking “toy.” To the casual viewer, it could be an actual hand grenade. An implement of war, destruction, death. The image was made while the Vietnam War was simmering. Was this also on the artist’s mind when she took the photo? How does this photo compare with the famous news photograph of Vietnamese children running from a napalm attack ten years later? I also wonder the impact of the photograph had the young boy been seen holding a toy gun instead. And our understanding that we, as viewers of the future, would be much more concerned now if we came across a youth in a park holding a toy weapon. Never mind the possible reaction of a contemporary police officer. The photo also has echoes of the Munch painting “The Scream” to my eye. A solitary figure in a moment of distress.
Back to the artist’s possible intention in this photograph. I have included a copy of the contact sheet (remember those?) from that day. One would instantly notice that the boy does not appear the same in subsequent images from that roll of film. In a few shots, he is smiling, happy, and looking far from disheveled or disturbed. It is the choice of the photographer to show the viewer their own vision of the world, of course. Are any of the other photographs from that roll as powerful as the image we are so familiar with? I’d say emphatically “no.” The famous image falls squarely in the style and subject matter that we know and expect from a Dianne Arbus photograph. Her body of work contextualizes how we as viewers receive the information in this image. In a gallery filled with images of outcasts, marginalized people, subcultures, the mentally or physically ill, or sideshow freaks…this photo of a young boy playing with a toy looks positively unsettling. Perhaps that was her agenda all along. Possibly she knew full well that she could manipulate the viewer’s response.
Why does this photograph speak so strongly to me? I often have thought that image could be lifted from a dream. Not a nightmare, but perhaps a more standard “bad dream” or a reverie of a lost childhood moment that I was witness to myself. I grew up not far from New York City, and I spent many weekend days running through Lincoln Park in Jersey City, which has similar features to those of Central Park. The smell of sycamore tress still sends me back to those days of my youth. I could have very well happened upon a similar situation back then. Of course, being a child I was year’s away from seeing the world in photographic terms, but nonetheless, this photograph provokes deep, visceral feelings in me. I wonder as I look at this photo what ever happened to this boy. He appears to be perhaps five or six years old in the photo, which would make him sixty years old or so today. I wonder if he or his family ever saw the final photograph, and how they may have reacted to it. Proud? Sad? Embarrassed? Angry? A moment of his youth, forever etched into our collective consciousness. Hanging on a museum wall and published numerous times. Provoking thoughts from complete strangers. All the result of a day of playing in the park on a summer day.