Published in Hermie Island, 07 March 2014
Central Park, summer of 62. The subject, a boy, stands in the center of the frame. His left strap hangs awkwardly off his shoulder. Long, thin arms extend at his side. His right hand clenches a toy hand grenade, while his left hand is contorted in a claw-like gesture. His face conveys a maniacal expression, perhaps borrowed from the super villain, the mad scientist or simply an antagonist on the silver screen. You have seen this photograph before. As one of the most celebrated images within the canon of fine art photography, it has been embedded in your mind’s eye. Immortalized in grainy celluloid through popular culture, it is anchored in our collective memory.
Diane Arbus’ iconic image – Child With Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park – has come to symbolize the deep-rooted tension that exists between primal violence and the tomfoolery of youth. It speaks of America’s historic evolution from the obsequious isolationism of the 1950s to the sociopolitical chaos that would materialize in the late 1960s and 1970s. While these themes appear to simmer beneath the surface of the gelatin silver print, the image does not actively search for metaphors but rather investigates the physical world in a solidly corporeal manner. Far from being orchestrated, the still merely captures a candid and fleeting moment.
Much like all of Arbus’ photographs, Child With Toy Hand Grenade inadvertently hints at Alan Kaprow’s radical assertion from his 1966 manifesto: ‘The line between [art] and life should be kept as fluid, and perhaps indistinct, as possible.’ Thus, Arbus’ practice breaks out of the controlled studio environment, as it creates uninhibited spaces of possibility and incites subject-participation to bring the artwork to life. In the wake of flawless fashion shoots and faultless photography, Arbus’ raw images present us with a visual argument for the dismantling of conventional standards of beauty, the undoing of aesthetic traditions, the blurring of art and life, and a re-imagining of the photographer’s encounter with the subject.