Look at this: “Boy wearing a straw hat …’ By Diane Arbus

What flaws did she find in this young boy, who was holding an American flag and a collection of badges expressing support for the troops, President Nixon, and blanket bombing Vietnam?

There would have been many other boys of his age in the street, dressed in floral shirts and flared pants. They were ready to protest this anti-war march with placards. Arbus chose this boy in his starched shirt and clip-on tie. What did you like about him?

Diane Arbus: Boy with a straw cap waiting to march in an anti-war parade. New York City, 1967. Click to enlarge. Courtesy of National Gallery of Australia

What was it? His gawkiness, his retrograde, uncool clothes, or his freckles? How did she get him to stare into her camera and reveal his secrets? She cajoled him or convinced him of her support for his political views. Was she sympathetic to his position as an outsider in a crowd of angry protestors, or was it more subtle?

This photograph’s full title is “Boy wearing a straw hat, waiting to march at a pro war parade in New York City, 1967”. This young boy is clearly in trust with the photographer, otherwise she wouldn’t have gotten the shot. But there’s a sharp critique as well.

Arbus’ method is based on this duality. Her images are ambivalent because she combines empathy with reproach. Arbus’s photography has the power to create an intimate dialogue, and set up a scene that allows us to interpret what is happening.

We can understand the young man’s “back against the wall” protest because we can picture all the flower children thronging around him with their slogans: Ban the Bomb, Flower Power, Make Love Not War. These imagined figures are merged into our current view of the 1960s as they protested against a senseless conflict.

His conservative zeal was the opposite of the protesters who surrounded him that day, 1967. They were dressed in their multi-coloured paisley glory and eager to put a flower into a soldier’s rifle barrel. It ended badly for everyone. The cross-eyed, fixed stare of this black-and-white grainy portrait reinforces his rigid acceptance of the war dogma – Bomb Hanoi and Support our Boys.

A female protestor offers a flower to an officer of the military police, during a 1967 anti-war rally in the US. Department of Defense/Wikimedia Commons

But despite his confident presentation, his jaunty tie and polyester jacket from the rack, his eyes tell a very different story. Was it that which attracted Arbus to the project? When she spoke with him, did she feel that he was not as sure of his position as his parents would like to believe, or as his priest might think? Or as he himself would wish to believe? Through the lens, we can see his loneliness and uncertainty. Is it fear or loneliness?

Arbus captures brilliantly the anxieties of the 1960s, the social and culture rupture that divided communities and put an end to the comforting fiction of the 1950s. The irreconcilable division is still evident after watching hours of TV debates from the recent Republican & Democrat conventions.

Arbus’s intimate images reveal this anxiety in a way that is graphic. They erode the space between us and our subjects. The sharp focus and centralised image of Arbus forces us to interact with the young man, who we would have otherwise avoided. The photographic format formalises his composition by highlighting the closeness of the man.

The square, by its very nature, is stable. It creates a classic construction which immobilizes the subject as if it were frozen in time. The flash is used to enhance the severity of this image, even though it was taken outdoors. It fixes this young boy in place, and forces him towards us until he becomes unbearably near. We can count his freckles. The contrast between his white hat, pressed shirt and the dark wall is striking.

Arbus, who committed suicide five years after the photograph was taken in 1972, was both admired and despised by then. Some saw her as a chronicler, an empathetic advocate for the marginalised and others as an exploitative voyeur. It seems that she was both in equal measure. The power of the photograph lies in its duality, which gives us a glimpse into our own humanity.

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