Once Upon a Time | Task 7

‘Once upon a time’


  • Research into an image that tells a story
  • How does it tell the story?
  • What is the story?

Research links:









When Diane Arbus died in 1971 at the age of forty-eight, she was already a significant influence even something of a legend among serious photographers, although only a relatively small number of her most important pictures were widely known at the time. The publication of Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph in 1972 along with the posthumous retrospective at The Museum of Modern Artoffered the general public its first encounter with the breadth and power of her achievements. The response was unprecedented. The monograph of eighty photographs was edited and designed by the painter Marvin Israel, Diane Arbuss friend and colleague, and by her daughter Doon Arbus. Their goal in making the book was to remain as faithful as possible to the standards by which Diane Arbus judged her own work and to the ways in which she hoped it would be seen. Universally acknowledged as a classic, Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph is a timeless masterpiece with editions in five languages and remains the foundation of her international reputation. Nearly half of a century has done nothing to diminish the riveting impact of these pictures or the controversy they inspire. Arbuss photographs penetrate the psyche with all the force of a personal encounter and, in doing so, transform the way we see the world and the people in it. This is the first edition in which the image separations were created digitally; the files have been specially prepared by Robert J. Hennessey using prints by Neil Selkirk.
–This text refers to the Hardcover edition.




Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, New York City, USA (1962)

First look/My Analysis:

This photograph depicts a young boy, stood with holding what appears to be a hand grenade. At first glance, the image draws me to look at his face and the absurd expression he has which leads me to wonder what has happened/what emotions he has that have caused him to express his face in this certain way. Next, my eyes move to his overall look and character, which is also particularly interesting as his clothes barely fit his skinny frame, with the strap of his dungarees hanging off his shoulder. Finally, the grenade comes into focus and creates the final controversial blow of the image. The grenade is clenched tightly in his claw-like hand, adding the last piece of impact to the photograph. Is he holding it tightly because he loves or hates it? His face from this final view and his character completely transforms and becomes similar to that of a maniac. A child holding a grenade looking terrifying as if he is about to throw it. Why is a child holding this grenade? Without information as vague as the title, the combined elements inside the image round it to a whole, makes you as the audience not want to look away and analyse the image further. You start to question it, wonder where he is and who has taken this. Does he need help or has it gone too far? What is this young boy caught up in? These are some of the questions I began to ask myself the first time I ever encountered this photograph. To me, this image when first seen tells a story of a young socially deranged boy showing clear rage in his body language.

The Story:

I’m very little drawn to photographing people that are known or even subjects that are known. They fascinate me when I’ve barely heard of them. – Diane Arbus

Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot. It was one of the first things I photographed and it had a terrific kind of excitement for me. I just used to adore them. I still do adore some of them. I don’t quite mean they’re my best friends but they made me feel a mixture of shame and awe. – Diane Arbus

Researching further into the photograph and work of Diane Arbus, I have come across her contact sheets from this particular shoot of “Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park” in which you can see his persona is completely transformed from my previous analysis, he now appears to look to be a normal, happy young boy posing to have his photo taken. Arbus captured this photograph by having the boy stand for a while whilst moving around him, she claimed she was trying to find the right angle. Arbus’ movement and time consuming angles during the shoot led the boy to become impatient, then told her to “Take the picture already!”. Just seconds around him saying this, Arbus managed to capture the photograph she had been keenly waiting for. The question is, what made Arbus take this photograph? Why the inclusion of a toy hand grenade? Did she set it up or did he just happen to be playing with it?

Behind the image/Arbus:

Due to the power of the image, I believe it is our own choice to perceive an answer to this. Arbus’ powerful “abnormal” choice of subject matter provoked controversy during her years in practice and even up to modern day. Her images can be seen as rebellious against traditional practices and subjects, particularly in the area of portraiture photography. Her choice of taking portraits of people whose normality were seen as ugly of surreal to society, she wanted to change public perception and perhaps understand these “different” people herself.

For me the subject of a picture is always more important than the picture. And more complicated. – Diane Arbus – “Diane Arbus” New York: Don Arbus and the Estate of Diane Arbus and Aperture Foundation, Inc., 1972, page 15

Arbus was harshly breaking the mould of what was seen as  “norm” in photography which sparked controversy during her era. Arbus had her fair share of critics, Norman Mailer was quoted in 1971 as saying “Giving a camera to Diane Arbus is like putting a live grenade in the hands of a child.” This particular image, taken in 1962 could be Arbus’ response to historical and political events in America, which transforms the style of imagery to almost Propaganda. Arbus shared a particular closeness and passion with her subjects whom she worked secretly with, this was maybe her way of escapism from the norms of society. I believe this image and all her work share a different piece to the puzzle of Diane Arbus, each tell a tale of her troubled mind and complex life; wife, divorcee, mother and suicidal photographer.

“I have this funny thing which is that I’m never afraid when I’m looking in the ground glass. This person could be approaching with a gun or something like that and I’d have my eyes glued to the finder and it wasn’t like I was really vulnerable. It just seemed terrific what was happening. I mean I’m sure there are limits. God knows, when the troops start advancing on me, you do approach that stricken feeling where you perfectly well can get killed. But there’s a kind of power thing about the camera. I mean everyone knows you’ve got some edge. You’re carrying some slight magic which does something to them.

It fixes them in a way.”


With this task I found the questions were quite adaptable to the choice I had made to research into. Each week progressing, I am finding it easier and more second nature to pick a suited answer to the task shortly after the lecture. I felt as though Diane Arbus’ story of photography and also her life, combined with her specific subject matter very interesting from encountering her work in the past, so she remained a strong photographer to contribute to this research. I found that the internet contained many different articles, blogs, pages, quotes on her, so had to sift and sort through the vast amounts of material available. I found some sites to be more useful than others including specific information about her in general and some about one of her most famous images that I wanted to speak about, analyse, tell the story of and briefly, the story of her. I found writing this research task interesting due to the many sources I had to read through as guidance for what to include.


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