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Does Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park say more about Diane Arbus than the subject of the photograph?

Typically, writers tend to reduce the work of women artists to biography. As a whole, Arbus's biography is truly "exhausting," to use the accurate phrase of the critic Anthony Lane, but its shockingly tragic qualities insinuate themselves into every discussion like an uninvited, severely disturbing houseguest. Then again, her photographic process does beg the question - why did she choose this snapshot out of all the others? Did this child's awkward frown speak to her in a way the other shots of him smiling normally simply did not?

Surprisingly, as the contact sheet reveals, the model of Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park is not a character from Jim Henson's Dark Crystal or Dante's Inferno, but the son of the 1931 Wimbledon tennis champ, Sidney Wood. The child's name is Colin Wood and, according to a 2003 Chronicle feature, he lives in Glendale, CA with his wife and kids (and he's still skinny). In 1991, a couple of years before meeting his wife, Wood had a company named Toy Grenade Productions, for which he performed one-man shows. Wood once felt angry at Arbus for making fun of him. But Wood says that his childhood was opulent but emotionally and spiritually poor, like Arbus's: "There's a sadness in her that she also saw in me," he says. "Arbus picked up on 'this need, which was very big in me at the time, to be accepted and appreciated or paid attention to." Explaining the context of the photo, Wood adds, "I was not directed, but there was a collusion of some kind. There's almost this "Is this what you want?" feeling on my face.'"

One of Arbus's many great innovations was her tendency to accept "absolutely no method of control," in her words, in her encounters with models, who were, for her, more important than the photos themselves. This kind of reckless abandon can be risky in your personal life, but in art it can seize great opportunities, like the chance to choose a frame that most photographers would never choose for publication, such as the uncanny grimace of the boy in Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park. The following year, Arbus's acquaintance, the novelist Norman Mailer, joked that giving Arbus a camera was like giving a child a hand grenade. This jab came about because he didn't like her typically unflattering portrait of him, which stars his crotch. 


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The following are excerpts from Sartle's upcoming book Art's Mind: The Creative Lives and Mental Health of Famous Artists, written by Kathryn Vercillo: 

Biographer Arthur Lubow writes of a time Diane recollected being a girl at summer camp, when all of the other girls were bitten by leeches, and she was disappointed she had not: “She complained that she had rarely felt anything in her entire life. She was untouched by the ordinary joys and pains that make people feel alive. This was her prison.”

Despite this admitted numbness to joy and pain, Diane Arbus had a striking ability to pull the drama out of any situation and illuminate it through portrait photography. One of her most famous photographs, Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, NYC is exemplary of this skill. The photograph is a powerful image of a knobby-kneed, dirt-stained boy holding a plastic grenade in the park, his mouth set into a grim, serious expression and his eyes bursting wildly out from the image. Author Deborah Nelson explains how this photograph was number eight in a set of eleven that Diane took of the boy, none of which were particularly remarkable, except for this one. In all of the other images, he looks like a normal, happy little boy playing in the park. In the photo she chose to print and publish, he looks entirely different. Perhaps this wildness reflects his true self, and Arbus was only able to capture it in one frame. Or perhaps the boy is a symbol, representative of a certain excitement or intensity Arbus was seeking from life and from the people that she encountered.


In the 1972 documentary about Arbus’ life titled Masters of Photography: Diane Arbus, she is quoted as saying that people have an actual self and an intended self, and that she liked to capture the gap between the two. She wanted to capture a person disarmed, when the way in which someone tries to present themselves to the world fades, and their internal or “true” self comes through. Of course, as the photographer she has the artistic liberty to determine what she portrays as a person’s “true” self. For example, in the aforementioned work Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, NYC, she apparently determined that the grim, frustrated face of the boy was most accurate to his true self, “truer” in some way than the silly, playful child in the other photos that she opted not to publish.

For a long time, people criticized this photograph, accusing Arbus, with her fascination with “freaks,” of cherry-picking the shots that made her subjects look the strangest. However, when Arthur Lubow interviewed the child in the photograph, Colin Wood, as an adult, Wood said that Arbus had captured exactly what he was going through in his life at the time. His parents were divorcing and he was an angry, upset kid, prepared to “pull the pin” on a grenade. He feels that Arbus did truly see him. In any case, we know that she sought to photograph this “gap,” and that she saw humans as having at least three faces - the one they show to the world, the one they really are, and the one in between. Perhaps her attention to multiplicity in her photographs was a way for her to reconcile her own fragmentation, or the gaps in her self-understanding. 



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Here is what Wikipedia says about Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park

Arbus' Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962

Arbus' contact sheet from the photo shoot

Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962 (1962) is a famous black and white photograph by Diane Arbus.


The photograph Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962, by Diane Arbus, shows a boy, with the left strap of his shorts hanging off his shoulder, tensely holding his long, stringy, thin arms by his side. Clenched in his right hand is a toy replica hand grenade (an Mk 2 "Pineapple"), his left hand is held in a claw-like gesture, and his facial expression is maniacal.

The contact sheet is "revealing with regards to Arbus' working method. She engages with the boy while moving around him, saying she was trying to find the right angle. The sequence of shots she took depicts a really quite ordinary boy who just shows off for the camera. However, the published single image belies this by concentrating on a freakish posture - an editorial choice typical for Arbus who would invariably pick the most expressive image, thereby frequently suggesting an extreme situation." The boy in the photograph is Colin Wood, son of tennis player Sidney Wood. An interview with Colin, with his recollections about the photograph, is presented in the BBC documentary The Genius of Photography.

According to The Washington Post, Colin does not specifically remember Arbus taking the photo, but that he was likely "imitating a face I'd seen in war movies, which I loved watching at the time." Later, as a teenager, he was angry at Arbus for "making fun of a skinny kid with a sailor suit", though he enjoys the photograph now.

She catches me in a moment of exasperation. It's true, I was exasperated. My parents had divorced and there was a general feeling of loneliness, a sense of being abandoned. I was just exploding. She saw that and it's like...commiseration. She captured the loneliness of everyone. It's all people who want to connect but don't know how to connect. And I think that's how she felt about herself. She felt damaged and she hoped that by wallowing in that feeling, through photography, she could transcend herself.

— Colin Wood

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