Encounters with Anonymous: Humpty Dumpty’s Glory

Photo by sarangib. CC0/Public Domain.

‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory,”’ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”’

‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument,”’ Alice objected.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

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I’ll start this entry with a reflection.

The germinal idea of my workshops with anonymous photographs goes back to my first time reading Hart Leavitt and David Sohn’s book, Stop Look and Write. When I was an impressionable young writer, they were a revelation to me. For those who haven’t had the pleasure, that book and the others in the series aim to teach students how to write using pictures as prompts. The objective is to teach young writers how to get away from generalizations and use descriptive language freshly, based on immediate observation — the very sort of description at which photography excels.

Here is one example of a young writer confronting a photograph:

Strange things happen in the lonely night. The old man has committed a crime — a burglary. His ragged pockets are full of money. He is on his way home, alone and fearful.

Is he being followed? He looks back quickly. There are only those poles towering. He hears a noise. A pole falls before him, driven by the wind. Black clouds cover the moon and the air grows colder. Now there is a clattering noise and more poles fall all around him. His heart is pounding faster, and he hurries. He runs, knocking down poles in his way. His hands bleed from the splinters. His head throbs with his leaden pulse-beat. He falls to the ground as they attack. The money blows away, but he doesn’t care about it any more because he is ready to die. His heartbeat stops and as the rain starts to fall, his face sinks into the mud where more poles are being blown to the ground.

After reading that bit of lucubration, a reader might expect a remarkably dramatic photo to have produced such a display of impressionist color. But that reader would then see the following photo:

Photo by Robert Häusser.

And yet the man is not looking back. There is no money on the ground. There are no poles on the ground, therefore one could not have fallen. The man’s hands are not visible, so it is pure speculation that they have splinters. Since he is upright, the man’s face is certainly not in the mud. And so on. Absolutely nothing in the student’s prose here is supported by the picture.

In the process of teaching young writers, Messrs. Leavitt and Sohn identify two major pitfalls: triteness and “heavy language.” I’d modify that last one. It isn’t the quality of the language that’s the problem. It’s the disconnect. It’s the choice to write, if you’ll forgive me the term, “speculative fiction.” In these fictions, the picture itself has become merely an excuse to effuse, or prattle about whatever the writer has on her mind. This is fine for getting a writer to imagine fantastic scenarios, but it says nothing about the picture. In fact, any picture would do; when the image is merely a springboard for a reverie, then it hardly matters what gets the reverie going.

This is not “heavy language.” This is Humpty Dumpty.

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As with words, so with photographs: if a word can mean anything one wants why shouldn’t a photograph, too? When discussing photographs, this sort of Humpty Dumpty, unfortunately, seems to be the default setting.

Consider certain “controversial” photographs that have appeared in the news. Whether it’s from Andres Serrano’s Romantically colorful photographs of corpses and crucifixes, Sally Mann’s mysterious photographs of her children, or Vasil Germanov’s flat and direct photographs of women wearing macabre makeup, the so-called controversy is a canard. Rather than consider the image as meaning, pundits instead respond by questioning whether or not the subject matter should even be photographed at all.

I bring this up because this is one of the major ways that viewer responses to photographs go off the rails. The viewer fails to distinguish between the nominal subject matter and the actual thematic subject of the image. The two are not the same.

For instance: My first column in this series was about attention. The second column was about assumptions.

The subject matter, however, of the first essay was a series of descriptive passages in English concerning a photograph with a brief conclusion that gives my interpretation. The subject matter of the second column was a formal analysis of a photograph and its overall optical effect, which I state to be a tool that artists often use to guide the viewer’s eye through the scansion of a photograph.

The subject matter in both cases could have been completely different, yet the thematic subject would have remained the same. I could have chosen different photographs. I could have used different words. I could have chosen a different overall structure. My thematic subjects were independent of their subject matter, and the same subject matter could have easily been used for other subjects. If you find this hard to believe, compare “The Eagle: A Fragment” by Alfred Lord Tennyson to “Seascape With Sun And Eagle” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti to “Death of the Eagle” by Jose Maria de Heredia. The nominal subject matter — descriptions of an eagle — remains the same in all three poems, but one could hardly find three more different thematic treatments.

That people accept this as obvious with poetry or painting or drama yet not in photography strikes me as curious. Whatever its reasons for being deeply ingrained in the American collective unconscious, this prejudice against photography stands as one of the greatest obstacles to interpretation. People simply refuse to note the presence of a human intellect in a photograph.

I’ve noted before in this series that part of the problem of interpreting pictures is that people simply don’t look; they simply assume they know what the picture is because, you know, they’ve seen millions of them and stuff. Glut is also the problem. People in industrialized nations are buried so deeply in visual imagery every day that they quickly experience filter failure. But most of the problem, I think, is the currently fashionable trend for Humpty Dumpty: a picture means exactly what one chooses it to mean, neither more nor less. The picture maker and picture itself are irrelevant. The photograph is a mere receptacle. And, as with Humpty Dumpty, there is no way for anyone to know what the writer means before one deigns to elaborate.

This presumptuousness is the evil twin, or perhaps the demon spawn, of the human brain’s penchant for uncritical inference. It’s precisely what Picasso was railing against in saying that “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.” Or, among post-structuralist writers of puffery, full of Barthes, Deleuzions, and Stanley Fish.

While Humpty Dumpty can make anything mean exactly what he wants it to mean, no more, no less, I have no such power over words or photographs. Nor do I want it. I’m far more interested in exegesis than eisegesis. Intimately familiar with my own prejudices, I do not find it either interesting or ethical to impose them on others. I’m more interested in discussion that expands my knowledge rather than merely confirms a bias. So my strategy remains to push Humpty Dumpty quickly out of the way and get down to business.

On which theme I present the next anonymous photograph.

This 8×10 print probably seems standard to most readers. Portraits are a common enough genre in American photography. It’s difficult to tell, but the print is glossy. From the level of detail and the aspect ratio it appears to have been taken with a 4×5 camera and enlarged to 8×10 — a common practice for professional photography. Judging from the hat, the hairstyle and the clothing, this picture was probably taken sometime in the 1940s. The car in the background is too blurry for me to identify exactly, but the rear end design, the bonnet, and the headlights remind me of a 1946 Ford. It is at any rate later than 1938 (here the headlights are a giveaway). The subject matter closest to the picture plane is a young woman. She is standing in three-quarter profile, with her head cheated toward the camera and the sun at about 45 degrees to her face. She is smiling. The focus is not particularly deep: the young woman is in the main focal point, but the focus quickly drops off softly blurring the foliage behind her, till anything behind the wooden bridge is well out of focus.

The bridge itself comprises the only set of oblique lines in the picture, which point directly to the young woman. Everything else in the picture is vertical; even the nominal horizon line with the automobile in the background is blurred to be indistinct.

One can conclude this picture is a standard, professional portrait of a young woman. Or is it?

This picture has text on its verso side. The text is not handwritten, however, but typed, cut out and pasted.

The text offers some important details. The woman isn’t the important subject matter at all. The real important subject matter is the black and white checked suit. Note the angle of the light: sidelighting is used to bring out small details, which is not what any young woman wants on her face. The photographer here has also left shadows on the young woman’s face — an absolute no-no in glamour photography. While the woman is helpful to show off the suit and add a heightened degree of attention, the suit is photographically the most important subject matter.

And what’s the thematic subject?  Is it happiness, namely the young woman’s delight and pride at creating her prize-winning suit? Or is it the appreciation of craftsmanship? Or is it civic pride at small-town Maridell Barnett winning the state championship?

Any of these would do. One could make a case for any of the three, or all of them in degrees. But any case would be built on interpreting the approach to the nominal subject matter rather than the subject matter itself. And it would be a far cry from Humpty Dumpty.

Next week I’ll talk about values.

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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