Encounters with Anonymous: Needful Things

I’m just going to jump right into this one.

It’s a square. Square format is supposedly difficult to make dynamic, because it tends toward balance and symmetry in a way the rectangular format does not. Yet everything in this square is dynamic. Every line except for the pillars, frame, and posts of the house is diagonal. The four easily visible circles are compressed into slight ellipses and joined together by broad diagonal lines (actually narrow rectangles), yet they appear ready to roll away to the right side of the frame and out of the picture.

The highest point of contrast is near the bottom center, beneath one of those ellipses. In fact there is a broad swath of white here, vaguely rectangular in shape, so bright that it almost seamlessly blends into the border of the print itself. This increases the sense of motion out of the frame, accentuated by the contrast between the white swath, the dark gray triangle at the bottom left of the frame, and the dark ellipses and diagonal lines above the white rectangle.

The foreground of the picture is largely blank. There is the dark gray triangle at the bottom left, the bottom right filled by the negative space of the white rectangle and nothing else. It plays a support role for the middle ground, where the most important nominal subject matter lies. The background forms a well-arranged series of alternating dark and light rectangles that diminish and recede from frame left to frame right. Receding space is essential to the effect of this picture: it gives context to the implied motion of the main subject matter of the picture, namely the construction formed by the four circles/ellipses that are joined by the dark lines/rectangles. It is the only object of any visual weight within the middle ground of the picture, is in clear focus (as is the whole picture), and is the only sizable object that casts a shadow.

I should mention that the picture is monochrome. It is most likely the product of a medium format camera. There aren’t any real clues to the date of the picture on the verso side. On the recto side, the paper bears the three-line designation Kodak/Velox/Paper, and the lab numbers 051B. That puts the picture most probably in the mid-1950s or at least no later than 1962 or so, which fits the final years of medium-format popularity in the United States. The light throughout the picture is direct and hard, from which one can infer that this picture was taken on a sunny day. The shadows are very short, so this picture is likely taken near midday. The ground seems to have fairly thick vegetation visible throughout. Deep in the background near the top right of the frame appears to be an array of flowers that repeats again near the middle of the frame. This picture, then, is most likely from late spring or summer. The technical polish of the image, with its dynamic arrangement, control of shadow and light, appropriate critical focus and lack of distraction, suggests that this is the work of a fairly skilled photographer.

The nominal subject matter, if one can judge from its relative size, central position, high contrast, dynamic lines, and the fact it’s the only set of circular shapes in the entire frame, is what appears to be the chassis of some small vehicle. From the picture it’s difficult for me to tell what that vehicle is. It’s most likely an automobile, but nothing I could identify more specifically than that. At any rate the nominal subject matter isn’t what the photograph is about. It is, I think, a photograph about affection, particularly the affection of a person for her machine.

There is an attention to the form of the machine here that is far more careful than what one might see in similar photographs of people’s cars. What’s the reason for that attention? It’s difficult to say. Given the amount of work it would take to strip a car to its chassis at home, this must be an important object. Does this photograph mark the beginning stages of a “hot rod” car? Is it a document of the remains of an automobile that has finally been stripped bare and is ready to be a notorious “father-son” weekend project? Both are possible. If this picture is indeed from the mid 1950s, hot rod culture is beginning to peak.

Noting that the garage door is open in this picture, either the chassis has just been rolled out of the garage or it is just going in. If it’s been inside the garage, this may be a photograph marking the first day when a mechanic is ready to begin her work on the jalopy of her dreams. If it’s going into the garage — well, only the rarest of people would keep a bare chassis and minimal motor in her garage regardless, and this is surely going to be worked on “soon,” in the optimistic sense of that well-used word.

I prefer to think this is image marks the beginning of a summer project. This chassis is going to be worked on immediately. I imagine that various parts are already in the garage: a V8 motor, Edelbrock Slingshot performance manifold, double barreled carburetor… Other parts are on the way. Will it be a belly-tank racer, a lakester with open wheels, or a straight-ahead roadster? Or will it be a three-window coupe? Hard to say. This is an image that reveals affection and a deep need to see clearly the thing at hand. Whatever it becomes, therefore, it’ll be invested with the same care and devotion that the photographer has put into this image of its humble beginning.

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