Summoning up all the wildness he possesses in his tiny frame, the little boy with the crenelated mouth is caught in a nanosecond of indecision, just before he winds up and hurls his grenade.
His empty hand, often referred to as a “claw”, forms the shape of another grenade, as successfully as a mime’s. The tension in this hand is astonishing: he grips a shape so solid and particular through empty air that you think of the circumference of an aluminum can, or a back-up grenade. Indeed, there had been a back-up grenade, lost when the boy attempted to blow up the alley next to his building (1).
This young squirt, with his strap falling down, an Arbus signifier for dishevelment and extreme emotion (see the provocative Girl in a Shiny Dress, N.Y.C. of 1967), with his preposterous lack of physical strength, is ripplingly physical, plausibly military, conceivably terrorist. He is ready to fight back; indeed, his stance itself is a challenge to this stranger he met only once, photographer Diane Arbus, to leave him be.
The boy spasms with frustration and impatience as Arbus moves around him, disorienting and trapping him with shot after shot, far more than he anticipated. (We see time unfold in the extant contact sheet.)
One is tempted to see the photographer as a bully, except that the boy sees himself as formidably armed with his plastic grenade and other invisible weapon. The little boy has the look of an old fashioned mad bomber more than a crisply controlled soldier. His defense is imaginary. Arbus did much work with imaginary identities in this era. She photographed extensively a man who believed himself to be Uncle Sam, and the Oklahoma-born claimant to the throne of Byzantium (2).
To implicitly classify a child as a freak, since this was Arbus’s life’s work and the term she used to describe her subjects, is obviously either unkind or at least careless. This is the ethically ambiguous element of her art which so many critics have referred to, which appeared most vividly in her later series on the mentally retarded, who may have been incapable of giving consent to her images and their publication. Likewise, the boy’s parents may have given consent to Arbus’s work with their child, but you can see at a glance that the child’s consent was far from clear.
(There is another irony to the child’s ‘freak’ designation: he grew up to become a born-again Christian insurance salesman. It would be hard to conceive of a more banal American identity, although the man came by it through a winding course (3). Also, in a sociological context, the boy’s position was enviable. The child’s image was, in fact, part of a planned and never executed series on “rich kids”, a subject to which Arbus, daughter of the owner of the successful department store Russeks, could relate. The boy, Colin Wood, was the son of Sydney Wood, the 1931 Wimbledon winner. Indeed, the boy was damaged by the original caption for the picture: “A child of the aristocracy in his rich archaic clothes”. There is an instability built into the photograph’s caption: sometimes it cites a “boy”, other times a “child”. Other times a “grenade” is identified, while occasionally a mere “toy” is cited. )
Early in her career, Arbus made a watershed decision not to pose and arrange her subjects, but rather to contort herself into position in order to get the most un-staged, apparently uninflected shot possible. She would make extraordinary accommodations, earning, for example, lifelong animus from feminist Germaine Greer, after Arbus straddled her on a bed and waited out a certain facial expression (4). Arbus even went nude three times clutching her camera on protracted visits at nudist colonies in order to photograph the occupants. (5)
“His puny rage, and the way it made him pull the trigger on that grenade, made him a perfect cartoon to represent a nation choking on its own bile over Vietnam and greatly diminished in self-image (6).” This is a brilliant interpretation by curator Colin Westerbeck, but one that belongs to the world of reception and not conception, as in 1962, the Vietnam War was only a gleam in JFK’s eye (7).
Traditionally, the mentally handicapped and the mentally ill are not to be discussed or documented in the interests of good taste, outside medical texts. These unfortunates are the obviously invisible, creatures from whom we avert our eyes. Children in distress or on the brink of explosion (or exploitation) are also to be ignored, kept from violating a pretty Hallmark aesthetic, even, often, by their mothers. Visual signifiers of distress are often inadequate to get our attention; it is thus that a child is bequeathed his terrible screech, which would earn him, in 1962, a brusque slap. In fact, one might say that the psychotherapy industry is founded upon such moments of neglect, rebuke or forgottenness.
What is foremost in its exceptionality is the image’s brilliant illustration of one of the most life-affirming concepts of the late French psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan (1901-1981). What Lacan called jouissance, he ascribed to the radiant life force we see in the young of all species, which will propel them through the dangers of youth and over the vast terrain of learning they must navigate. The puppy chases its own tail in circles to discharge energy. Colts romp when walking would suffice. In every respect, this force is dissipated over the course of one’s life. Some of this life-force will continue up to the moment of death, but it is constantly depleted. This is why adulthood is marred by physical creakiness, and restricted curiosity. Here, we have the collection of childhood energy in such abundance that the child doesn’t know what to do with it, a display of confusion and glory.
(1) Hugh Hart, “Post-developments: For the subject of Arbus’ “Child with a toy hand grenade,” life was forever altered at the click of a shutter”, San Francisco Gate (Sunday 19 October 2003).
(2) Patricia Bosworth, Diane Arbus: a biography. 1984. (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005).
(4) Bosworth 314-315.
(5) Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph. 1972. London: Thames & Hudson, 1997.
(6) Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz, Bystander: A History of Street Photography. (New York: Bullfinch, 1994).
(7) Lawrence Freedman, Kennedy’s Wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam. (New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000).