Encounters with Anonymous: A New Feature about Photography

Photo by colmalm. CC0/Public Domain.


I want my paintings to be able to defend themselves, to resist the invader. Just as though there were razor blades on all surfaces so no one could touch them without cutting his hands. A painting isn’t a market basket or a woman’s handbag, full of combs, hairpins, lipstick, old love letters and keys to the garage.

— Pablo Picasso

Over the years, I have collected a sizable number of photographs. Some of them are from internationally well-known photographers. Some of them are from local photographers. Some are mine. Most, however, belong to that much-ballyhooed photographer “Anonymous.”

Anonymous is so famous as an artist that Robert Flynn Johnson even named a whole book on photography after her. Her work can be found in many places. My own collection of her work I’ve culled from thrift stores, antique shops, photo booths, rummage sales, basement clearances, and the occasional visit to Michael Maslan or Michael Fairley in downtown Seattle.

My interest in the work of Anonymous the Photographer is simple: meditation. These photographs come from all over the world and all across the 19th and 20th Centuries. Their subject matter is equally diverse. Above all, they are all relatively free of the intellectual prejudice that comes of knowing the author either by reputation or relationship. And so each photograph offers an opportunity to see, to look deeply and truthfully at just what it is that one calls a photograph.

That skill of actually looking at a photograph is, I think, essential in the contemporary world. Yet it is rarely if ever practiced by the laity. Instead, people across the world are simply bombarded with images and demanded to sort them out on their own, while the bombardiers make money off the confusion.

There are plenty of books on “anonymous,” “snapshot,” “vernacular,” and “folk photography” on the shelves these days. All of them have, to me, missed the point. Without exception, the books I have encountered by Robert Flynn Johnson, Thomas Walther, Marvin Heiferman and others aim for two goals: promoting connoisseurship, and rewriting “cultural history” (whatever that is). I have no interest in either. I am interested in seeing and helping others to see. Without first looking and seeing, any connoisseur’s collection or New Historicist’s cultural history remains purely speculative and based solely on personal prejudice. To quote the late John Berger, “Seeing comes before words.”

This weekly column, then, is about seeing. And then words.

So I start with a picture.


This is a monochrome gelatin silver print, five inches by seven inches. The printing paper is not white-white but rather ivory-white, slightly yellow or “warm.” The uniformity of the warmth suggests that this is not aging but rather a quality of the paper itself. It’s also fairly thick compared to contemporary papers. It’s difficult if not impossible to tell from the digital copy here, but the paper is also textured and not at all glossy. The fiber texture is patently tactile. The overall contrast of the picture is fairly low. The shadows are more brown than black. The highlights are blown out. The midtones are very soft. On the back of the print, in the lower right corner, three numberers are stamped. The first is cut off at the edge, but appears to be 8, then 9 and 5. The print has various bends across the surface, especially in the upper left.

Within the frame, the camera has captured an image of a wooden cot and wooden folding chair amid a grove of realtively thin trees. The cot is in the foreground at the right bottom of the frame. On the left bottom is the chair, partially obscured by a tree whose shape runs along the left edge of the frame. At the top left of the frame, a handlebag of some sort hangs from the tree. Protruding from it is a shiny curved object that is mostly obscured by the bag. In the middle ground of the picture at left is a man-made structure that appears, from its folds, to be soft and portable. It is partly obscured by trees, but it is probably a tent. Near the middle of the picture, slightly off center behind the cot is a cardboard-looking box, rectangular in shape, standing upright. Facing the lens is a commercial brand logo: Surf. On top of that box, oriented laterally, is another, smaller box that reads “Sno-White.” There appears to be something dark on top of it, possibly a folded article of clothing, but it’s obscured by low contrast.

Behind it taking up most of the center of the picture is a short, thin tree with thin branches and long needles, decorated with a couple chain-link streamers and some other shapes that are blown-out to white. At the top of this tree is a decorative ribbon made into bows, and some indistinct ornament at the very top. Behind it in the back ground are other trees. All of the background trees are much taller and larger, though still quite thin and crowded together. Throughout the picture the light is soft, and nothing casts a hard shadow.

The area most in focus is nearest the lens. The tree on the left of the frame is fairly sharp, as is the bag hanging from it, the chair beside it, and the cot. The middle area of the picture with the boxes and the short, decorated tree is already behind the area of critical focus, and the background trees behind it become less distinct the more one’s eye moves toward the top and right edges of the frame, or into the implied deep space at the left where the tent is. The area of highest contrast is between the bottom of the handlebag on the tree and the blown out sky behind it.

It’s also the only object close to round; almost everything else is vertical lines, with a couple of horizontal lines at the bottom created by the cot and the box tops, and a scattering of oblique lines (the folding chair seat, the streamers, the tent, and a couple of fallen/diagonal trees). The weight of the objects at the bottom seems to stabilize the frame, aided by the strong vertical lines everywhere. The man-made objects contrast with the natural setting both in shape and size, but the natural clearly dominates the surface area of the picture, as well as its implied deep space.

Within this largely vertical composition, the top of the small tree and its ornament form a nice triangle with the corner of the cot and the back of the folding chair, as well as a secondary triangle with the corner of the tent and the extreme right branch of the tree, and a tertiary triangle marked by the tree itself and emphasized by the overblown white streamers. All of these together insist on the tree as the central subject of the picture, and the relationship between the photographer and the tree as highly significant.

Given that Surf laundry detergent wasn’t introduced into the American market until 1959, this photograph cannot have been taken any earlier. The paper of the print is textured and warm and is, I think, a later Bromesko paper from no earlier than the late 1960s. The logo of the Surf box, however, is from after 1969 when Unilever modernized their corporate logos, and locates the photograph from 1969-1978. That the photograph is in black and white suggests earlier in that period rather than later. By 1972 Kodachrome-X had debuted and in 1976 Fuji released ISO 400 color negative film and William Eggleston had his first show of color photographs. Black and white was on its way out. My guess is this was taken between 1969 and 1976.

Original 5″ x 7″ prints from a 5″ x 7″ camera would have been quite rare by this time, as the format was always second to 4″ x 5″ and 8″ x 10″ large formats. Furthermore, the technical mistakes in the image — blown highlights, center of picture out of focus, distracting background and foreground, etc — suggest that this photograph was not the work of a professional. So does the fact that there are lab numbers on the back of the print. A professional shooting large format would most likely process her own film. The likelihood of an amateur in the United States carrying a large format camera into the wilderness is quite low. Which means that this print was probably blown up from 35mm film or, less likely, from a medium format 6 cm x 7 cm or 6 x 4.5.

Regardless of whether the original format was 35mm or medium format, this image was likely enlarged and cropped by a photo lab, then printed on a fairly high-grade textured paper. Therefore, despite its technical shortcomings more than likely this picture held a lot of meaning for its photographer, who made a decision to print on expensive paper at a larger size. The meaning most likely resides within the photographer’s relationship to the tree. Although there is no snow on the ground and the sky is fairly bright (judging from the blown out highlights), this small tree meets all the expectations of a Western Christmas tree. Going from its needles and overall shape and size I’d guess it’s either a pine or a fir about six to eight feet in height, not very lush, decorated with paper chain links and possibly tinsel, with boxes beside and beneath it — the classic proletarian Christmas tree.

My conclusion: this is an amateur photograph of a Christmas tree at a campsite in some old growth wilderness of evergreens, possibly on the West Coast. As an image, its function was probably purely documentary, not aspiring toward evidence or proof or stylized art. Its lack of technical polish suggests its appeal is largely sentimental. Most likely the print was sufficient to jog the memory of the photographer, who probably expected to have to explain it further with words. Those words would fill in certain gaps, such as what was that tree exactly, who decorated it, where did it come from, how did it get into the picture, what is in the boxes, whose tent is that, and so on.

There are millions of other pictures exactly like this one, used as springboards for verbal memoir and raconteurship. On that level, it probably succeeds adequately. Without the narration of the photographer, however, the picture simply presents a description, not very deep, of a generic woodland camp site and a familiar event in a very unfamiliar setting for most. For me, it’s a quick exercise in visual irony that holds some interest as a puzzle. Which is enough for me. I love a puzzle.


Next week, I’ll talk about words.

Filed under Photography

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net