Photography

Encounters with Anonymous: Values

In Morris Weitz’s book Hamlet and the Philosophy of Literary Criticism, he gives a useful four-step guide to interpreting art. Those four steps are: description, explanation, evaluation, and poetics. Since theory is not particularly interesting to me here, I’ll reduce this to three: description, interpretation (synonymous for me with explanation), and evaluation. My first two columns here were about two levels of description: physical description and formal description. The last column was about interpretation.

Let’s get to evaluation.

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The original size of this print in my collection is 6 cm x 9 cm. It’s the correct ratio for a 35mm negative, but it also fits a medium format Linhof or Arca or some such. The picture is not perfectly legible; nevertheless, even at this size certain things are clear. It’s a black and white picture, slightly tinted toward sepia. The shadows are not particularly black. The top third of the picture is largely blown out to pure white. There is artifacting around the edges, not digital but analog. At the bottom edge of the frame are irregular black shapes larger than the ones at the top right corner and top left edge. These are almost certainly film damage, where the edges of the roll have cracked or warped or both.

Except where the image highlights are completely blown out, the entire print has a consistent texture. Tiny horizontal lines alternate across the surface covering everything deep into the shadows. This is not a traditional film grain texture. The texture greatly resembles paper: my guess is that this comes from putting a still-wet negative into a paper negative holder.

Centered in the picture is a trio of men. Two of them wear caps. The man in the foreground is shirtless, wearing a shoulder strap of some sort — I think it’s a pair of binoculars — that runs from his right shoulder to his left hip, and a long necklace with what are probably military dog tags. He is the only one with a mustache. The man furthest back in the middle ground of the picture has a similar cap. One can see his head and a bit of his right leg but that’s it. The man in the middle wears a long sleeved shirt. He has a shoulder bag as well running from his left shoulder to his right hip, the opposite of the first man. He also wears what appears to be a holster on his left side, suggesting he is right-handed. His right arm is bent, resting on his hip. He leans to his left side, where his left arm rests on a military cannon. I am not an expert in ordnance, but it appears to be an M101 105mm howitzer.

In the background I can make out what appear to be mountain peaks and some logs or wooden detritus. The blown out area is probably the sky, so this is likely a clear day rather than cloudy. The middle ground of the picture looks almost blown out as well, as though the ground is covered with snow, but this seems to go against the man wearing no shirt at all and the man in the middle wearing no hat. The “damage” to the print is quite great and the contrast is low so the true nature of the middle ground may be obscured by whatever effect was caused by the way the negative was printed.

The straps of the men’s shoulders make a nice contrast of lines in the foreground, as does the symmetry of one man with a hat in front and one behind the hatless man in the middle. The men appear to have been in critical focus, though with the low contrast caused by the negative damage this may be deceptive. They are certainly closest to the picture plane and the center of the frame, which implies they are the important subject matter of the picture. That the highest point of contrast is beneath the arm of the leaning man in the middle reinforces this. All of the lines in the picture lead essentially to them as well: the slight oblique of the howitzer barrel, the slope of the hill behind them, and the areas of middle grey with a white streak through them all bring them visually forward.

A digital scan with my scanner will not show it clearly but on the back of the picture is marked “B39” in the familiar laboratory ink stamp font. Also one can see on the back the single word “Velox” in three places, maybe four. Kodak switched to labeling their paper with the three-line printing “Kodak/Velox/Paper sometime in the mid-1950s, so this is earlier.

The best clue to dating the picture might be the patrol caps. By 1953 the US Army mandated the so-called “Ridgway Cap” which was stiff. (Think of Fidel Castro’s favorite cap: it’s a Ridgway.) These by comparison are soft and loose. They are almost certainly M-1951 patrol caps — assuming these are US soldiers.

My best interpretation is that this is a picture of three UN soldiers but that this is a non-American unit at a relaxed moment. Though it’s hard to tell with such a damaged print the man in front with the mustache strikes me as having Turkish facial and body features. Turkey was the second country after the United States to send soldiers to Korea, with a brigade of 5,000 troops at first and a total of 14,936 over the course of the war. This man may be one of them, though he does not wear the common heavy Turkish hat with ear flaps. Turkish soldiers were known for their flowing mustaches and their sidearm swords. It’s possible that what I think is a shoulder bag is actually a scabbard. Turkish soldiers served a one-year tour of duty. The man in the middle of the picture in the long sleeve shirt appears to be in his civvies. He may very well be going home, and this photo may be a picture with his buddies from one of Turkey’s three howitzer batteries. Or at least one buddy: the man in the background looks reluctant to be in the photo.

I think this picture is from 1951-1952. It’s almost certainly not from 1950, when the fighting would have been quite intense for the Turkish brigade, especially during the ugly, costly battle of Kunuri. The men here are not smiling (probably because the American cliche of mugging for the camera is unknown to them) but they are not dour and they are not as relieved as they would be in 1953 toward the end of the war, I think. An interesting question to ask is: who is the photographer? Is it his own combat unit here? Is he borrowing the camera from the man in the middle who asked him just to take a picture of him with his friends before he leaves back home to Eastern Turkey? Is he going home also?

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Having given my minimally plausible interpretation of the picture, it’s possible to spin others of more or less likelihood. I’ve restricted myself to the simple. Other interpretations are possible. What I haven’t addressed is that question that I get asked all the time whenever I talk about art.

But is it any good?

This is an old question. It stems from those awful days of public school education where teachers blithely ask students to write “argumentative” essays for the first time. What the teachers are really encouraging however is the formation of opinions on merit and value. “Support your opinion” — how many times have high school English students heard that? The major problem with this pedagogy, if one can narrow it down, is that it teaches students that it’s the opinion that matters rather than the argument. The harm this does is incalculable. It encourages students to think shallowly, and about the wrong things, and to respond prejudicially (also to the wrong things).

And it’s just plain bad teaching technique.

Every teacher I know has been drilled repeatedly on Bloom’s Taxonomy of cognitive thought. In the taxonomy, the goals of one level are built upon the levels below them. Evaluation is an extremely high level goal. It is impossible to achieve without understanding, application and analysis. In Bloom’s taxonomy, each level has action words:

  1. Understanding includes description.
  2. Application includes generalization.
  3. Analysis includes inference, and interpretation.

Yet schools often ask students to jump immediately past all three of these to high-level thinking before the rest of thinking has been thorough. This is extremely dangerous. But of course it’s perfect for breeding generations of hyper-opinionated hoi polloi who cease to believe in facts — because why bother with facts if it’s all about opinion anyway? In other words, it’s perfect for populating the realm of Twitter and Facebook. Before they start asking students to “evaluate” i.e. ascribe value to things, schools ought to ask them to do much more basic things first. Indeed entire sciences — biology, for instance — are built on the “lower” levels of thought like pure description.

The question of evaluation, therefore, is something one should leave until the very end of thinking. Too, there must be a distinction between evaluation based on internal evidence and upon external criteria. If that distinction is clear, in most instances the old question will resolve easily.

It resolves easily for me. My friends know that my answer to the old question “Is it good?” is consistent, and blunt.

Good for what?

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It would have been easy, and acceptable in most circles, to take one look at this week’s photograph, spot its “flaws” like the cracked film edges, the textural damage, the low contrast, the blown-out highlights et cetera and conclude that it’s not a very good photograph. But again, good for what?

Given my minimal interpretation suggests that this picture is the work of a photographer taking a photograph of a man going home after the war, the basis for the evaluation can be many things. Is the picture good enough for the two primary subjects to remember when the picture was taken? I would say yes. Therefore it is a perfectly “good” picture.

But, you say, look at how ruined it is by poor technique. The young printer — because there is no guarantee that the photographer and the printer are the same person — was probably in a hurry or simply lacking in proper drying technique. But he has printed enough information so that all three men in this picture could use it as a memory jog easily enough, to sit around a fireplace and tell stories to their grandchildren about their time in Korea. Exquisite darkroom technique is irrelevant for that purpose.

From the point of view of a student in one of my workshops, this picture might be good because it gets them to look more deeply at an image to solve problems and help build an interpretation of a vernacular photograph. The technique that seems to damage the photograph’s immediate comprehensibility actually increases its use value because the student is forced to a higher level of concentration.

Personally speaking, I find it an interesting picture precisely because of its textural damage. The usual way of printing photographs with a texture is to use some sort of textured glass, which often looks phony. Here the unwitting photographer has opened up a fresh new darkroom technique probably by mistake, but mistakes are the foundation of artistic innovation. Think of the pictures that could be made surreal or hyperreal by using this technique on purpose! Therefore it is a “good” picture to me because it inspires my imagination.

Glib evaluations like “this is a terrible photograph” often miss the point. They measure the photograph against an external hierarchy of values that have nothing to do with the photograph itself but are simply, in most cases, remnants of inculcated prejudices like cultural bias, personal taste, argumentum ad hominem, and so on. One needn’t look far to see these prejudices latent in virtually every discussion on social media, and many in academic papers.

But if one chooses to forgo, or at least temporarily suspend one’s own prejudices, an entire world opens up. Art again becomes a series of choices, by both maker and receiver, a product of the human will not toward power but toward communication and understanding based on sharing, an opportunity for thinking and meditation. And I’d rather live in that world than one in which art is merely a function of narrow, prescriptive judgments based on goodness knows what. Every photograph offers a way out of this world, if only one will look.

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