A Guide to Analysing Photographs: Diane Arbus

A Guide to Analysing Photographs: Diane Arbus

American photographer Diane Arbus, born in 1923 as Diane Nemerov to a wealthy upper-class family. She started her professional career as a fashion photographer along with her husband, Allan Arbus. Together, they photographed models for leading fashion and lifestyle magazines as well as advertisements but in the 1950s, Arbus decided to venture into art and street photography after being mentored by photographer Lisette Model and began to document the various citizens of the city especially the marginalized communities such as the physically handicapped, the transgender community, circus performers and the mentally ill.

The inherent meaning of a photograph is not of the foremost importance but how such a photograph may intervene in the world by shaping notions of community, identity and empathy. The perception of viewers is subjective and is determined by their personal tastes, dominant conventions and status-quo but a radical transformation of known photographic protocols has a uniform effect in re-contextualizing existing images.

Categories used for analysis: 

Visual elements

1. Shapes: Shapes in a photograph can define a subject or object and help communicate meaning. They can guide the viewer’s attention towards the photographic subject.

  1. Primary shapes: These shapes are circle, square and triangles. They are also known as geometric shapes. They suggest stability and order.
  2. Secondary shapes: These shapes are oval and skewed triangles. They give an illusion of motion and make the composition dynamic.
  3. Implied shapes: These are shapes that have no tangible form of their own and are found in the space around the subject or object of a photograph.

2. Lines: Lines in a photograph guide the viewer’s attention towards the photographic subject.

  1. Horizontal lines: They make the photographic composition stable, relaxed and static.
  2. Vertical lines: They make the photographic composition formal, powerful and give a sense of strength.
  3. Diagonal lines: They make the photographic composition dynamic and active. They give a sense of depth, movement and infinite space.
  4. Converging lines: These are two or more diagonal lines that converge as it moves from the foreground into the distance. The center of interest is the point where the lines appear to meet. They give a sense of motion and depth.
  5. Curved lines: These lines allow the viewer to wander across the frame and explore various elements rather than being directed to a specific subject or object. They give a sense of depth and motion.
  6. Implied lines: This line isn’t visible and can be formed by a subject’s gaze and physical gestures.

3. Texture: Texture is the surface or bodily details of an object or subject. They give a tactile quality to the subject. They can convey information about a subject and provide focus to the subject’s specific elements. Textures in a photograph can be enhanced by the use of side lighting, tonal contrast and leading lines.

4. Space: Space is the part of the photograph around the subject that is usually empty and doesn’t contain many distracting elements.

  1. Positive space: The positive space is occupied by the subject or object of a photograph. Increased use of positive space makes the composition active, crowded and intense.
  2. Negative space: The negative space is around the subject or object and doesn’t contain any visual elements. Increased use of negative space makes the composition simplistic, subdued and isolated.
  3. If the subject is looking off-camera it can create a sense of possibility and mystery to the space that hasn’t been photographed.

Composition

1. Asymmetry: The visual elements of one half of the photographic frame have a

different visual weight than the visual elements of the other half .

Note: Visual weight in a photograph is determined by the size, brightness, tonal contrast, shapes, lines and placement of subjects on either side of the frame.

2. Symmetry: The photograph is symmetrical in balance when both sides of the image have an equal visual weight and are identical or nearly identical to each other in appearance.

Note: All symmetrical photographs are balanced but not all balanced photographs are symmetrical .

3. Foreground: Foreground is the subject or object placed closest to the camera, generally in front of the main photographic subject.

  1. Context: The foreground may help in establishing the setting or location of the photograph.
  2. Frame: The foreground may help in directing the viewer’s attention towards the photographic subject rather than distracting from it.
  3. Sense of scale: The foreground may help in determining a subject’s physical height and size in relation to other subjects or objects in the photograph.
  4. Sense of depth: The foreground can achieve a sense of depth by indicating a physical distance between the foreground and background of the photograph.

4. Background: The background is the part of the photograph behind the main subject. It shouldn’t contain many distracting elements in order to direct the viewer’s attention towards the subject.

  1. Context: The background may help is establishing the setting or location of the photograph.
  2. Contrast: The background should have a contrast in tone to the subject in order to create a clear separation between the two.
  3. Sense of scale: The background may help in determining a subject’s height and size relative to other subjects or objects in the photograph.

5. Rule of thirds: The photograph is divided by four lines, two horizontal and two vertical

forming nine grid boxes in total, three boxes in each row . There are four intersecting points

that align with the subjects and become points of interest. The subject should occupy one-third or two-thirds of the photograph in order to establish context of the location or environment composition.

6. Angle-of-view

  1. The level angle: The photograph is taken at the same level as the photographic subject. The level angle gives a sense of equal status and power to the subject.
  2. The high angle: The photograph is taken from a higher position than the photographic subject. The subject looks inferior and less significant to the viewer.
  3. The low angle: The photograph is taken from a lower position than the photographic subject. The low angle eliminates any distracting elements and isolates the subject from the surroundings.

7. Camera shots

  1. Extreme long shots: This camera shot is used to establish a setting or location relative to the subject. It makes the subject appear distant and isolated.
  2. Long shots: This shot shows the entire body of the photographic subject. The long shot places the subject into a context by establishing the setting.
  3. Medium shot: This shot photographs subjects from the waist up and keeps some of the surroundings visible.
  4. Medium close-up: This shot frames the subject from the chest up while putting minimal emphasis on the surroundings.
  5. Close-up: This shot frames the subject’s face or other bodily features without photographing the surroundings or location.
  6. Extreme close-up: This shot focuses on a particular or specific feature of the subject by emphasising the details and texture of the feature.

Analysing a photograph: 

Source: Pinterest (Photo edited by Author) 

The geometric shape in the photograph is the dark-toned tent in the background behind the subject. The rectangular shape of the tent provides a sense of scale relative to the size of the subject. The contrast of the tent helps in defining the shape of the subject standing in front of it. The flowing cape of the subject (yellow line) forms a skewed triangle and due to its bright tones guides the viewer’s attention towards the subject’s face. An irregular or secondary shape of a heart is formed by the pattern on the subject’s lower garment.

The diagonal lines (yellow lines) formed at the top and bottom of the tent act as converging lines and create a sense of depth by taking the viewer into the frame from the foreground into the distance. The diagonal lines frame the subject and provide an overall symmetry to the composition. The cape of the subject forms an implied curved line that due to its light tones and points the viewer’s attention towards the subject’s face.

The textural quality of the image can be attributed to the leading curves formed by the cape and the non-leading curves and lines formed by the pattern on the subject’s costume. The emphasis on the texture does not come from an additional light source but the contrast between the dark tones of the tent and grass to the light tones of the subject’s clothes and skin.

There is no negative space in the photograph as all the elements surrounding the photographic subject add to the shape and textural elements of the composition. The positive space occupied by the elongated and vertical subject is emphasized by contrast and placement. The subject is facing the camera and looking directly at it.

The photographic balance of the composition is symmetrical as the subject is placed at the centre and either side of the frame is nearly identical to each other in terms of shape and lines. The element of difference is the light tones on the right side of the frame (the cape) and the dark tones on the left side. However, this difference allows the composition to be dynamic and interesting.

The foreground of the photograph contains the grass on the surface and the subject facing the camera. The contrasting tones from the background such as the tent and sky create visual emphasis and a context to the outdoor setting.

The photograph doesn’t follow the rule of thirds (white grid) and places the subject in the centre of the grid without aligning with any intersecting points. The cape is situated along the vertical line to the right and guides the viewer’s attention to the subject. The photograph is taken at a level angle and a front angle as the subject is looking directly at the camera and seems to be compliant in the photographic process. The photograph is taken in a long shot wherein the entire body of the subject and the context of the environment can be clearly seen.

Conclusion: 

Diane Arbus used various visual and compositional elements such as symmetrical balance, level angle-of-view, and frontal gaze of the subjects to portray an idea about marginal and vulnerable communities that did not exist in the mainstream society of the 1950s and 1960s America. They are positioned in settings where their ‘otherness’ isn’t amplified by the supposed normalcy of the mainstream society. In Arbus’s photographs, the subject’s biological or bodily difference isn’t for sale and their sexuality isn’t a fetishistic commodity sold and mocked during the then-popular ‘freak’ shows.


Vasundhara Singh
Vasundhara Singh

Vasundhara writes gripping stories, imaginative poetry, and critiques of books and movies.

Featured Image Credits: Flickr

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