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‘Everything is sharply defined; we can even count his freckles.’ Detail of Diane Arbus, Boy with a straw hat waiting to march in a pro-war parade, N.Y.C., 1967. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia

Here’s looking at: ‘Boy with a straw hat …’ by Diane Arbus

What did Diane Arbus say to this young boy with his ill-fitted Boater hat and barn door ears before she lifted her twin-lens Rolleiflex, square-format camera to capture his image in a blinding flash? Arbus confessed that,

You see someone on the street, and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw.

So what flaw did she see in this young man, holding an American flag by his side with his collection of badges extolling support for the troops, for President Nixon and for blanket bombing of Vietnam?

The street where they met that day would have been crowded with other boys his age, many dressed in floral shirts, beads and flared pants, waving placards and ready to protest against this pro-war parade. Yet Arbus selected this boy, in his starched white shirt and clip-on bow tie. What was it about him?

Diane Arbus, Boy with a straw hat waiting to march in a pro-war parade, N.Y.C., 1967. CLICK TO ENLARGE. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia

Was it his gawkiness, his uncool, retrograde clothes, his freckles, or just his general incongruity? And how did she convince him to look into her lens and let the camera divulge his secrets? Did she cajole him, convince him of her solidarity with his politics? Or was she empathetic to his outsider status amongst a group of angry protestors?

The full name of this photograph is “Boy with a straw hat waiting to march in a pro-war parade, N.Y.C., 1967”. There’s clearly trust between this young boy and the determined photographer – there must have been, or she would never have got the shot she was after – but there’s also a piercing critique.

This duality is at the heart of Arbus’ modus operandi. She binds empathy with reproach, and it is an ambivalence we effortlessly adopt in reading her images. The power of Arbus’ photography is her ability to open up an intimate dialogue and provide the mise en scène for our interpretation of what is transpiring, literally before our eyes.

We understand this young man with his “back to the wall” resistance because we can imagine all those flower children swelling around him, brandishing their slogans: Make Love not War, Flower Power and Ban the Bomb. Those imagined figures amalgamate into our contemporary view of the sixties as they strenuously protest against a senseless war.

We know from history that the protesters surrounding him on that day in 1967, decked out it their paisley multi-coloured glory, eager to place a flower in a soldier’s rifle barrel, were the antithesis of his conservative zeal. We also know it ended badly, for all. His rigid acceptance of the dogma of war – Bomb Hanoi, Support our Boys – emblazoned on his chest and writ in his thin-lipped fortitude is reinforced by the fixed, cross-eyed stare in this grainy, black and white portrait.

A female demonstrator offering a flower to a military police officer, in an anti-war march in the US in 1967. Department of Defense/Wikimedia Commons

Yet for all the certainty of his presentation, his jaunty bowtie and off-the-rack polyester jacket, those eyes tell a different story. Was that what attracted Arbus? Did she sense when she spoke to him that he wasn’t as convinced of the veracity of his stance as his mother and father might like to think, as his priest believed or indeed as he wished to believe himself? He is peering intently into the camera, and through the lens we sense his loneliness and his uncertainty. Or is it fear?

Arbus brilliantly captures the anxiety of the sixties, the social and cultural rupture that separated communities and ended forever the comfortable fiction of the fifties. After exposure to hours of television debate from the recent Republican and Democrat conventions in the USA, that irreconcilable separation is still painfully evident.

Arbus graphically reveals this sense of anxiety by creating an intimacy that erodes the accustomed space we like to keep between any subject under our scrutiny. Her sharp, close focus, centralised image requires us to engage with a young man we might otherwise have chosen to avoid. His proximity is emphasised by the photographic format, which formalises the composition.

The square is inherently stable, establishing a classical construction that imposes immobility on the subject, as if frozen in time. It’s a severity enhanced by the use of flash, even though outdoors, which fixes this young man in place and pushes him toward us until he is unbearably close. Everything is sharply defined; we can even count his freckles. His white hat and pressed shirt literally glow in contrast to the muted darkness of the wall.

By the time of her suicide in 1972, just five years after this photograph was taken, Arbus was a legendary figure, both celebrated and vilified. For some, she was a chronicler and empathetic advocate of the marginalised, for others an exploitative voyeur. In truth, it seems she was both, in equal measure, and the power of this photograph resides in a duality that provides us with a window into our own humanity.

The free exhibition Diane Arbus: American portraits is on display at the National Gallery of Australia until October 30.

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