Revelations: Unlocking Diane Arbus’ Composition Techniques

“Child with A Toy Hand Grenade” taken by Diane Arbus. Central Park, NY. 1962.

“Child with A Toy Hand Grenade” © Diane Arbus

As I was sitting in my living room flipping through the pages of Diane Arbus Revelations, I realized that all of her photographs shared the same visual element. Not the perversity or the freakish that my mind continuously sipped at her photos throughout the years. It was the identical arrangement repeated to the same effect in all of her photographs. Most of her subjects were presented almost dead-center in the foreground, against a soft-focused background; the lens of her camera constantly focused on the subject’s eyes. In each photograph, their eyes seemed to stare out with frozen dejection.

The weirdness of Arbus’s photos had stimulated my curiosity since the mid 1990s, but it had never crossed my mind to study her life and photographs until I watched “Fur.” As Manohla Dargis of the New York Times described the movie, Steven Shainberg turned Arbus’s life into a neurotic fairy tale. It could be this neurotic fairy tale triggered my interest to deepen the study of her life and work.

In 2002, I chose to study one of her photographs, which she took some time in 1962—after she studied with Lisette Model—of a boy in Central Park, NY. It was the “Child with A Toy Hand Grenade” photo. Back then, I saw nothing but the weird, spasm, frustrated look on the boy face. The gesture of the boy’s fingers awkwardly contorted into claws, tightly clenched to an invisible grenade in his other hand added nothing but a disturbed feeling to his portrait. Rather than the toy replica grenade, it seemed to me that the boy was about to explode. Now, it appeared to me that the tensional expression on the boy’s face and his gesture created a striking divergence between his innocent, childhood clowning and the primal violence of the wars during his time.

A photo of Colin Wood and his children, taken by Chris Stewart. Oct 19th 2003.

Colin Wood © Chris Stewart

Through my research, I learned that the boy was Colin Wood, the son of tennis player Sydney Wood, who’s the 1931 Wimbledon winner. As I dug deeper into Arbus and her photographs, I stumbled across an article by Hugh Hart on the SF Gate’s website. In this article, Colin Wood told Hart that he was playing war game in Central Park, near the 72nd Street entrance, when he had a brief encounter with Arbus. Wood also stated that, “There was something about Arbus—she had a hunch about people, and she always found something that revealed the common denominator, the grittiness, of our common humanity.”

In an interview with the Washington Post, Colin Wood said, “She catches me in a moment of exasperation. It’s true, I was exasperated. My parents had divorced and there was a general feeling of loneliness, a sense of being abandoned. I was just exploding. She saw that and it’s like . . . commiseration. She captured the loneliness of everyone. It’s all people who want to connect, but don’t know how to connect. And I think that’s how she felt about herself. She felt damaged and she hoped that by wallowing in that feeling, through photography, she could transcend herself.”

In “Diane Arbus: A Biography,” Patricia Bosworth recalled the effect which Arbus had on people when they talked to her. She would cater people with gentle questions and then listened to their answers with an intensified degree. She made everyone feel as if they were the most important person in the world.

Arbus made me feel the same way when I looked at her photographs. She fascinated me with the sincere photos she took of strangers. There was no lie, trick, or modification. She did not even try to be artistic. She only wanted to take photographs. Real photographs.

I love how she merged reality and art into her work.

The contact sheet of the iconic photo, “Child with A Toy Hand Grenade,” taken by Diane Arbus. Central Park, NY. 1962.

“Child with A Toy Hand Grenade” © Diane Arbus

Each of the twelve frames on her contact sheet illustrated a day in the park with Colin Wood as the main subject. As a viewer, I could tell Arbus was just as excited as Wood. I could even hear Arbus’s silent conversation with her subject.

Her contact sheet showed the nature of a boy in the young Colin Wood from the perspective of an adult. It seemed that she didn’t care much about composition. She smacked the boy almost to the middle of every frame. To me, she was more interested in capturing the character of the young Colin Wood.

Without question, each of these shots perfectly depicted the nature of a boy; but why did Arbus choose frame 8A to portray the young Colin Wood? Was it because of his awkward expression?

“Child with A Toy Hand Grenade” taken by Diane Arbus. Central Park, NY. 1962.

“Child with A Toy Hand Grenade” © Diane Arbus

Comparing frame 8A to other frames, Wood’s character and Arbus’s visual narrative seemed to abruptly burst into full power. It carried the strongest story among these shots. Here, the oddity and the restlessness replaced the innocent, gallant manner of an ordinary boy. The tilted head, the dangling strap, the invisible object in his left hand created a sense of violence and imperfection. These triggered the viewer’s curiosity, pulling them deeper into the life of this iconic photograph.

Frame 8A also contained important photographic elements such as depth of field, distance, and direction. The people in the background added life to an ordinary day in Central Park. They also brought a sense of height, weight, space and distance to the photograph.

Furthermore, the lighter tone of the leaves helped to emphasize Arbus’s subject.

“Child with A Toy Hand Grenade” taken by Diane Arbus. Central Park, NY. 1962.

“Child with A Toy Hand Grenade” © Diane Arbus

Since Arbus used a Rollei Wide instead of a standard Rolleiflex, she was able to stay close to the young Colin Wood. The wide-angle lens and the close distance also rendered a distorted effect. It’s the key impact of the creation of this photo.

The Two Point Perspective furnished a 3D relativity, created a dynamic scene that other frames on the contact sheet lacked. The Two Point Perspective I had here might not entirely correct, but it gave me a rough idea how Diane Arbus creatively combined the wide-angle lens with the Two Point Perspective to give a sense of reality to her photograph.

“Child with A Toy Hand Grenade” taken by Diane Arbus. Central Park, NY. 1962.

“Child with A Toy Hand Grenade” © Diane Arbus

As I used the rule of third as a guide—first photo at the very top, the only thing that lined up was the top of the grenade in his hand. However, with the Golden Ratio, his tilted head, the left sleeve and the grenade appeared to line up nicely with the baroque diagonal. The right side of his body also locked and aligned with Golden Ratio.

Still, the composition seemed weak for someone like Arbus.

This led me to the decision that I should inspect her photograph with the armature grid as a guide.

“Child with A Toy Hand Grenade” taken by Diane Arbus. Central Park, NY. 1962.

“Child with A Toy Hand Grenade” © Diane Arbus

A few words about the square format before I get to the fun part.

By nature, the essential symmetry of the square had no reciprocals but only diagonals, and the diagonals would point to the center of the square. Unconsciously, we would slap our subjects to the center because our minds only saw the center of the frame. This made the square format more difficult to compose than the rectangular format.

Because of the missing reciprocals, the armature grid also became tricky to use on the 1:1 format. However, I was glad that I went the extra miles to study this iconic photograph. Everything fell into their places and her arrangement began to make sense.

Like Cartier-Bresson and Doisneau, Arbus also integrated geometry into her composition to achieve the visual dynamic effects. It’s just that her way of arranging the subjects wasn’t as elegant as Cartier-Bresson or Doisneau. Her composition was more realistic. It brought the viewers closer to the subjects and the realities in her photographs.

“Child with A Toy Hand Grenade” taken by Diane Arbus. Central Park, NY. 1962.

“Child with A Toy Hand Grenade” © Diane Arbus

With the armature as a guide, the shadow of the leaves aligned perfectly—the brown lines—to the lower part of the Baroque and the Sinister diagonals. This subtle detail was among the important aspects that helped to direct the viewer’s eyes to the heart of the photo. Also, the two groups of people in the background and the boy formed a nice enclosure—the triangle—and created an opposite direction to the shadow of the leaves, giving a sense of balance, as well as keeping my eyes on the boy.

Just above the endpoint of the shadow was the focal point. The focal point itself hinted where Arbus focused her lens on, but with the combination of the direction of the shadow, they also revealed the key which Arbus used to control the viewer’s eyes.

“Child with A Toy Hand Grenade” taken by Diane Arbus. Central Park, NY. 1962.

“Child with A Toy Hand Grenade” © Diane Arbus

The image below showed a number of hidden gamuts—those orange repetition lines, 90 degrees—the green L shapes, and the coincidences—the faded blue horizontal and vertical lines. Most viewers would only be able to feel but not consciously aware of their existence.

In painting, artists used the gamut as the rhythm to breathe life into their work. To relate things on a line of continuity, they used the coincidences. The coincidences were also used to enhance the movements from top to bottom, side to side, as well as on the diagonal lines. As for the 90 degree right angle, it added strength to the image, as well as to please the eye.

“Child with A Toy Hand Grenade” taken by Diane Arbus. Central Park, NY. 1962.

“Child with A Toy Hand Grenade” © Diane Arbus

The repeating triangular shapes were another creative technique that Arbus used—in combination with the wide-angle lens on her Rollei Wide—to guide the viewer’s eyes to the subject in this photo. Cleverly, Arbus implemented the contrast of the trees and the washed out background to stop the viewer’s eyes from wandering beyond the subject.

Unlike Cartier-Bresson, Abus didn’t use an elegant-constructed-frame as a setting to lock her subject into a composition. She loosely used the principle of composition to visually narrate the stories of her subjects. The way Arbus integrated the light and the shadow in the foreground unconsciously set off a dark and overwhelming mood in the viewer’s mind. And by using the perspective creatively, she was able to blend it with her arrangement without the limitation to orthodox standards.

“Child with A Toy Hand Grenade” taken by Diane Arbus. Central Park, NY. 1962.

“Child with A Toy Hand Grenade” © Diane Arbus

Of course, Diane Arbus didn’t have time to plan her arrangement on the armature grid while she was shooting—neither Cartier-Bresson, nor any master of photography. If so, then why their compositions looked such impeccable on the armature grid?

As we already knew, the armature had always been the structure beneath the principles of composition. Most painters used the armature as a guide to study the art of visual arrangement. Since master photographers like Cartier-Bresson, Lisette Model, Doisneau had studied painting before they approached photography, they would use the same technique to control their photographic arrangements. Using the armature had become second nature to them.

Studying Diane Arbus’s work helped me to further understand the art of visual arrangement. A photo with the snapshot look, like this one, didn’t mean that it lacked of composition techniques. And the rule of third wasn’t the only guide for visual composition. With the armature grid, I could set myself free from the golden ratio, the golden spiral, or the rule of third. By the way, these were just the basic composition guides.

They’d never meant to be rules. No one would put me in jail for not following any of these guides.

About Kris Phan

I'm not a photographer. I'm a camera user. View all posts by Kris Phan

7 responses to “Revelations: Unlocking Diane Arbus’ Composition Techniques

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