There’s something magical about a lens, especially the kind you find on the medium-format film camera that Diane Arbus used for this photograph.
These lenses present to the world a large, perfectly smooth convex surface (of a diameter to be measured in inches, not millimeters). Beyond this is a tunnel enclosing multiple glass surfaces receding into darkness, each surface giving off its own little distorted reflection.
Children of this girl’s age are fascinated by such lenses. They come up close and stare into their depths. If you let them, they will press their eye up against them. Most photographers are unhappy about this; toddlers tend to be sticky with sugar, crumbs, tears, saliva and worse. And lenses are awkward to clean, easily damaged and expensive.
But Diane Arbus knew that great photographs don’t happen when you’re trying to keep your equipment clean. She also knew that the best portraits are a kind of love triangle in which the photographer, the subject and the lens exert an equal fascination on one another. This photograph would be thrown out of many photography competitions and photo-clubs; it breaks too many “rules”. For a start, a crying child is not a fit subject for a photograph and the photographer should have used a longer focal length and put more distance between herself and the subject. But what is the right viewing distance for photographing a crying toddler?
We don’t comfort crying babies at arms-length, but hold them tight against us. The world of this photograph is that of the hands-dirty parent, not of the professional baby photographer, paid to present babyhood at its most appealing and reassuring.
The girl is poised on the knife-edge between two states: the self-absorption of crying and a reengagement with the world. At first it’s not clear in which direction this transition is heading: is this a happy child provoked to tears by the attentions of a lady pushing a camera in her face? or is this an unhappy child being distracted from her crying by the strange object she’s been presented with? The girl’s eyes are so powerful that it takes a few moments to notice the signs that the girl had already been crying when Arbus intervened and stanched her tears—the flushed cheeks, those perfect tears rolling down her jaws.
Looking at this photograph I have to remind myself that it is normal and healthy for children of this age to cry like this. Not only does the intensity of her crying seem disproportionate to its likely cause, but the suffering expressed seems to exceed what a human mind and body can experience or endure. This is probably a result of misapplied empathy; when I see a child crying like this I effectively ask myself the question: what would it take to make me to cry like this? And I can imagine no loss, heartbreak or sorrow that could bring me to the tears, which, in a child of this age, are provoked by maybe the softest of falls or a refused lolly.
Interesting. I’ve always thought this Arbus’s most powerful photograph. For a start, unlike most of her other personal work, it’s not of someone we would consider ‘marginal’ or a curiosity through acting strangely, and so in a sense while the sobbing child is perfectly herself she is perhaps also a generic representative of us all in her distressed state.
I think it is also more honest if we concede that Arbus has clearly not stepped in to ‘staunch’ her tears. Arbus was out every day patrolling the streets of New York wih her heavy camera gear no other reason than to get powerful photographs, regardless of any other consideration. Her ‘victim’s’ feelings were not her concern.
To literally highlight this, consider that Arbus had a powerful flash gun strapped to the left side of her Mamiya TLR camera, which was discharged into this girl’s face at close distance, the result being a separation of subject from background that gives the pain far greater pathos. While this might not be what photographers are supposed to do or how they should behave, nevertheless it is what Arbus did and how she was, and it is what makes her photography what it is, casually exploitative, but if you can get past that, proufoundly important.