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This black and white photograph is a three-quarter-length shot of the writer Susan Sontag and her son David Rieff embracing, facing the camera straight on. They are photographed outside in a park framed by trees and buildings, all of which are out of focus in the background. The photograph was taken in 1965 for a magazine spread commissioned by Esquire magazine called ‘Family Colloquies’, which featured famous parents pictured alongside their adolescent children. David is smartly dressed in a cap and pea coat standing about a foot shorter than his mother who embraces him with her right arm around his shoulder. David’s left arm cannot be seen, but his fiercely protective body language and the closeness of the pair’s alignment suggest that he is returning his mother’s embrace. Sontag rests her temple on the top of David’s head and is more casually dressed than her son in a roll-neck jumper, loose-fitting trousers and duffle coat. This picture was ultimately not included in the printed Esquire article, nor was it included in the 1972 retrospective of Arbus’s work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This print was made by Neil Selkirk on behalf of the artist’s estate.
Susan Sontag was an established novelist, essayist, critic and highly visible public figure on the bohemian New York cultural scene at the time that this photograph was taken. Her writing made a radical break with traditional postwar criticism in America, blurring the boundaries between high and popular culture. David was fathered by Philip Rieff, cultural critic and author of Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959), whom Sontag married as a teenager and divorced in 1959. In Arbus’s portrait of the pair, the viewer is met by a penetrating and obstinate gaze through the shallow picture plane. David’s taciturn expression in particular seems loaded with contempt and seems to capture the power dynamic between the two.
By 1965 Arbus’s work as a photographer was well known in the United States, seven of her prints having already been purchased by MoMA the previous year. During her life Arbus published over 250 pictures in more than seventy magazine articles. The bulk of these were commissioned by Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar, but other less frequent publications include the Sunday Times Magazine, Nova, New York, Show, Essence, Harper’s, New York Times, Holiday, Sports Illustrated, and the Saturday Evening Post.
Harold Hayes, editor of Esquire between 1963 and 1973, wrote that:
Invariably an Arbus photograph portrait carried with it such power of evocation that it transcended the character of magazines … In nearly every case the subject would be framed by his most natural, obvious setting … and pose straight-eyed and unblinking toward the centre of her camera lens … Only those who have been photographed by her know what sorcery she must have employed to persuade such confrontation.
(Harold Hayes, Esquire, vol.76, nos.5–6, November 1971, p.8.)
Sontag published an unfavorable review of Arbus’s posthumous 1972 retrospective at MoMA, contending that Arbus’s subjects were ‘people who are pathetic, pitiable, as well as repulsive’ and that the photographs were taken ‘based on distance, on privilege, on a feeling that what the viewer is asked to look at is really other’ (Sontag 1973). The writer was irritated by the lack of political engagement in Arbus’s work – she claimed that the photographer was not interested in ‘ethical journalism’, but rather with subjects that were found ‘just lying about, without any values attached to them’ (Sontag 1973). Sontag posited Arbus as the embodiment of a dangerous and disdainful medium, though at no point mentioned her previous association with the artist for her portrait with her son.
Susan Sontag, ‘Freak Show’, in The New York Review of Books, 15 November 1973, reprinted as ‘America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly’, in Susan Sontag, On Photography, New York 1977, pp.27–48.
Sarah Parsons, ‘Sontag’s Lament: Emotion, Ethics and Photography’, Photography & Culture, vol.2, no.3, November 2009, pp.289–302.
Elisabeth Sussman and Doon Arbus, Diane Arbus: A Chronology, 1923–1971, New York 2011.