Executed in 1962, Child with a Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962, is one of the most iconic photographic works by the American photographer Diane Arbus. At first glance, the image of a young boy in Central Park appears to be the epitome of childhood until one sees the hand grenade he is holding in his hand. At once, innocence is transformed into anguish as the scene is shattered by the—albeit toy—grenade. This lifetime print made by Arbus of Child with a Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962 is exceedingly rare. Only six other extant examples are known, and reside in The Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and four private American collections. This is the only print of this image to have been signed by Arbus on the recto.
In the fall of 1962, Diane Arbus submitted a portfolio of photographs as part of an application for a Guggenheim Fellowship for Photography. Various friends and photographers—Walker Evans, Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander among them—offered to write letters of recommendation, including her teacher, the photographer Lisette Model. Model’s letter of recommendation, dated January 4, 1963, begins as follows “Photographers can be good, bad, excellent, first rate, or tops, but there are hardly any artists among them. Here is an exception.”
Born Diane Nemerov in New York City in 1923, Arbus first began taking pictures in the early 1940s. With no lengthy formal training but a voracious intellectual and artistic appetite, she found her way into classes with two notable photographers, Berenice Abbott and Lisette Model, as well as the legendary art director Alexey Brodovitch. During these formative years, she regularly found inspiration at An American Place, Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery of photography and modernist and avant-garde art, as well as through conversations with him and other notable figures like Nancy Newhall, Acting Curator of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art, taking such opportunities to present and discuss her own work.
In 1956, the commercial photographic partnership that she and husband Allan Arbus had maintained for roughly ten years was ended. She was 33 years old. Though not unfamiliar with the exacting level of detail provided by large-format sheet-film cameras used by most fashion and commercial photographers, when Arbus begins to establish her own creative voice and consciousness, she favors a 35mm Nikon camera. “Although she has been photographing since the early 1940s, Diane now, and apparently for the first time, starts numbering her negatives and corresponding contact sheets beginning with #1. She will maintain this system for the rest of her career” (D. Arbus, Revelations, New York, 2003, p. 139).
While the handheld 35mm camera is her tool of choice for the next 7 years, “the dissatisfaction with her relationship to the camera will recur at various intervals throughout her career, often signaling an impending change in her work” (ibid., p. 154). In 1962, that change occurs, ushered in by a permanent switch to a different creative tool, a twin-lens Rolleiflex camera which uses the 2 ¼ x 2 ¼ inch film format. A 35mm camera is used by holding the camera up to one’s face and by looking through the viewfinder in order to focus on the subject. By contrast, a Rolleiflex camera is equipped with a viewfinder which is brought to eye-level only for an initial focus. Once focused, the camera is held at waist level, the photographer’s gaze directed downward, resulting in a drastically different vantage point. The transition to this new camera was not smooth, as evidenced by her thoughts in a letter to Lyn and Bob Meservey, circa January, 1962. “I am very gloomy and scared. Maybe I have discovered that I have to use the 2 ¼ x 2 ¼ instead of the 35mm, but the only tangible result so far is that I can’t photograph at all. I am inept and hopeless with the bigger [camera] and I no longer believe the language of the littler one, which I so loved” (D. Arbus, ibid., p. 159). By summer, however, her confidence is buoyed and she has made several notable images in the direct style and square format that come to characterize her mature work. These include Two boys smoking, A castle in Disneyland, Man and boy on a bench, and most famously the present work, Child with a Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962.
The contact sheet of that particular roll of film, with its characteristic 12 exposures, shows it to be a sunny day in the Park. In the last frame of the roll, two women with several children and strollers pass by, a young girl openly crying. The first 11 exposures, however, are exclusively of a playful boy in dark shorts, patterned short-sleeved shirt buttoned to the top, and wearing dark sneakers and socks. From these photographs, it is unclear that he is accompanied by any adults or playmates.
In the first four exposures, he’s flattered by the attention and dutifully poses for his portrait, as any child would, performing for the camera in the manner that the world of adults has trained him to: right foot forward, hands on hips, a gentle smile and an air of confidence, holding still for as long as is needed. In frame five we see him standing somewhat awkwardly at a drinking fountain, clearly waiting to have his picture taken, still giving Arbus his full attention. And then, in frame 6, with a mischievous grin, a toy hand grenade has appeared from somewhere—a friend or guardian out-of-frame, perhaps? We see him dangle it from his fingertips with a hint of theatrical danger.
Arbus keeps her lens trained on him—perhaps cajoling him or encouraging him or responding to others out of view—and two exposures later, the 8th on the roll, the boy faces his portraitist directly, his left overall strap dangling at his side, the toy grenade clasped in his right hand with his left hand openly clenched. His face wears a grimace of exasperation. This is the moment when the boy slips from posing “as he should” and what he reveals is both unexpected and menacing. Arbus releases the shutter and in that fraction of a second produces an image that has transfixed the world for over 50 years. A powerful symbol to be interpreted in multitudinous ways over the ensuing years, but most particularly of a country on the brink of war and social unrest.
The print being offered comes from the estate of Patricia Hill, a dear friend of Diane Arbus. Arbus met Ms. Hill in New York City in the early 1940s having just married Allan Arbus. Hill was working as a writer at the time—she later shared her manuscript for her first novel, The Nine Mile Circle (1957) while Arbus was living in Italy—and remained a close friend until Arbus’ death in 1971. In 1967, Hill was living between Stonington, Connecticut and France with her husband and daughter. That year, New Documents opened at The Museum of Modern Art, a seminal exhibition curated by John Szarkowski which featured three photographers: Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand and a young Lee Friedlander. Hill traveled to New York City to see the exhibition. This particular print was a gift to Hill during those years. She chose the image in person on one of her many visits to New York, and Arbus later mailed the print to her in Connecticut. The print remained in Hill’s possession until it was sold at Christie’s in 2005.