Diane Arbus

Boy with a straw hat waiting to march in pro-war parade, N.Y.C. 1967


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Not on display

Diane Arbus 1923–1971
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Image: 372 × 373 mm
frame: 619 × 620 × 19 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008


Boy with a straw hat waiting to march in pro-war parade, N.Y.C. 1967 1967 is a black and white photograph by the American photographer Diane Arbus. The image is a portrait of a neatly dressed adolescent boy standing in front of an ashlar-patterned building facade, wearing a dark grey casual jacket, black sweater vest, white button-down shirt and dark striped bow tie. A white straw hat sits firmly atop his head, above his brow and large protruding ears. To the boy’s right is a shoulder-high American flag, which he appears to be holding. Pinned to his left lapel is a small patterned bow and a large white badge which reads, ‘God Bless America; Support Our Boys in Vietnam’. On his right lapel he wears another button with the message ‘Bomb Hanoi’ written in bold black letters. The boy’s face is set in a stern expression: his thin lips are held in a firm line and his small eyes directly address the camera’s lens.

This photograph is a gelatin silver print shot using a 2¼ twin-lens reflex (TLR) Rolleiflex or Mamiyaflex camera, which Arbus began using in 1962 instead of a 35 mm Nikon SLR. The larger, heavier TLR, which is best suited to studio photography, is operated at waist level and as such requires a slow, deliberate approach to the creation of each shot. Therefore, rather than shoot her subjects spontaneously, Arbus would coordinate with them to compose the picture. Curator Sandra Phillips observes that ‘the 2¼ camera lent itself to a more direct relationship with the subject of the picture … As a result, the making of the picture becomes a deliberate process that requires the subject’s cooperation and participation’ (Phillips 2003, pp.52 ̶ 9). The staged nature of the photograph betrays Arbus’s deliberate approach to capturing the young man’s likeness. In addition, the larger format negatives of the TLR create increased detail and clarity in comparison to the SLR.

Boy with a straw hat waiting to march in pro-war parade, N.Y.C. 1967 reveals the conflicted social and political nature of the United States in the 1960s. In her 2003 article ‘The Question of Belief’ Phillips writes that ‘Arbus’s artistic embrace of ambiguity and cultural conflict, and her unvarnished presentation of the figures that represent them, presaged many of the cultural changes wrought by the generation of the sixties’ (Phillips 2003, p.60). In this photograph, Arbus captures one aspect of individual political engagement in America during the 1960s. A cursory inspection of the image makes apparent the subject’s youthful face, large ears, clean-cut apparel and American flag, creating an impression of adolescent idealism and patriotism. On the other hand this photograph creates a conflict between the expectation of innocence and youthful patriotism and the extremist political opinions advertised by the stern facial expression and pro-violence badge on his lapel. Photographer and critic John Szarkowski said of the photographs Arbus made during the Vietnam War that ‘for most Americans the meaning of the Vietnam War was not political, or military, or even ethical, but psychological. It brought us to a sudden unambiguous knowledge of moral frailty and failure. The photographs that best memorialize the shock of that new knowledge were … by Diane Arbus’ (Szarkowski 1978, p.13). Boy with a straw hat waiting to march in pro-war parade, N.Y.C. 1967 portrays this psychological, instinctual reaction to the war, as well as staging a moment of anticipation and threat as the boy is represented calm and still before participating in a march.

Conflict and ambiguity are consistent themes throughout Diane Arbus’s body of work. Her blunt, matter-of-fact approach resulted in harsh portraits of characters across society, from glamorous celebrities (Jorge Luis Borges in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1969 1969, printed after 1971, Tate AR00552) to ‘freaks’ (The backwards man in his hotel room N.Y.C. 1961 1961, printed after 1971, Tate AR00573). Of her own aesthetic style Arbus said that, ‘this scrutiny has to do with not evading fact, not evading what it really looks like’ (Arbus and Israel 1972, p.2). Despite her forthright style, Arbus’s photographs often stage ambiguity, such as the indistinct boundary between adolescence and maturity in this photograph. Although not a formal series, Arbus shot multiple portraits of American youth which challenge conventions of childhood and play, particularly with regard to war, violence (Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962 1962, printed after 1971, Tate AR00524) and the transition to adulthood (Teenage couple on Hudson Street, N.Y.C. 1963 1963, printed after 1971, Tate AR00525). Boy with a straw hat waiting to march in pro-war parade, N.Y.C. 1967 represents a teenage boy on the cusp of adulthood, but already championing a violent war. In this way, the photograph also shows the thin borderline between adolescence and adulthood, patriotism and extremism, belief and naivety.

Further reading
Doon Arbus and Marvin Israel (eds.), Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph, New York 1972, reproduced p.2.
John Szarkowski, Mirrors and Windows: American Photography Since 1960, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, New York 1978, reproduced p.13.
Sandra Phillips, ‘The Question of Belief’, in Doon Arbus, Diane Arbus: Revelations, exhibition catalogue, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco 2003, pp.50–66.

Tessa Rosenstein
The University of Edinburgh
December 2015

The University of Edinburgh is a research partner of ARTIST ROOMS.

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