Encounters with Anonymous: Stock Photography

Those who know me as a photographer know that my primary interest is in sequences. I’ve always been far more interested in combinations of images than in single ones. That alone gets me kicked out of the Photography as a Fine Art club and its coterie of snobs who fetishize the single “great” image. I’m not terribly interested in “great” images in isolation. I do understand, however, why people are blinded by them: it’s the leftovers from generations of poor instruction (or non-instruction) in art history.

Since the history of painting and sculpture tends to revolve around the mythology of “great” artists and their precious “masterpieces,” pedagogues around the world decided that photography might as well be forced into this mythos as well. That it has been ill-conceived and misguided, as well as woefully incomplete, has not stopped pundits and teachers from continuing the charade. To see the history of photography as something else other than a continuation or augmentation of Gardner’s History of Art or Civilization requires, if you will, a different frame of reference.

I’ve explained before that is the basis of my interest in so-called vernacular photography. Most photography is quotidian, so any real history of photography should start there. It’s also the basis of my interest in sequences. Sequential photography reveals the true complexity of photography. I hinted at this in my earlier column, “Double Down.” It’s time to elaborate.

The Buddhist sage Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche wrote his book True Perception: The Path of Dharma Art:

The basic principle of photography is viewing things as they are in their own ordinary nature. We should be willing to see a particular vision without expectation or conceptualization. We should have the perspective of being willing to take any kind of good old, bad old shot. We should be extremely careful and inquisitive about what we see in our world: what we see with our eyes, what we actually perceive, both how we see and what we see.

Such is the basis of so-called Miksang photography taught among some Shambhala teachers. Go out and see the world as it is. Record your pure, mindful perceptions. All well and good. It’s the same fundamental premise in Philippe Gross’ The Tao of Photography: Seeing Beyond Seeing, not to mention the writings of Cartier-Bresson and others. Though limited, it’s essentially good advice and good practice. The important thing Miksang adds, however, is subtler. It is the reminder that there are an infinite number of possible perceptions, even of the same object. As Chögyam Trungpa wrote elsewhere, “There is unlimited sound, unlimited sight, unlimited taste, unlimited feeling and so on. The realm of perception is limitless, so limitless that perception itself is primordial, unthinkable, beyond thought.”

It seems obvious enough. It’s the reason why people take completely different pictures of the same essential subject matter. But there is also an intellectual leap to make here. If the number of perceptions is infinite, then one perception alone says very little about a subject. It requires multiple images of something to begin to approximate its essence.

This is the premise behind Bernd and Hilla Becher‘s photographic work. They spent the better part of forty years photographing seemingly mundane industrial architecture in their search for “typologies.” The Bechers rarely displayed their work as single images. Instead, they preferred sequential arrays, sometimes strips, usually grids, but always multiple images that echoed and refined each other. The point of their work was that each picture represented a “type” of an object. More accurately, each individual picture was a “token” of a “type” of object. That type would only reveal itself by comparison to other tokens. For instance, the Bechers would arrange a series of blast furnaces in a strict grid, in which each individual furnace was itself but also a kind of object called “blast furnace.” Such work relies on the the natural human tendency toward abstraction, or, if you’re into Immanuel Kant, toward the idea of a transcendental object.

Photography excels at this because of its particular recreation of visual detail. The Bechers’ push for “typologies” continues to influence photographers to this day, notably Rineke Dijkstra, Thomas Ruff, Penelope Umbrico, and Taryn Simon. Such typological surveys are only possible when photographs are considered as part of a series of other photographs.

This need not even be restricted to photographs of type. One can extend the same idea to photographs that show the passage of time. The most obvious example of this is the one that most people fail to realize is so obvious: the motion picture, which is by definition a series of still image frames, whether paper, celluloid, or video screen. But serious photographers have worked in the purely sequential as well — Elliott Erwitt comes immediately to mind, as do Eve Sonneman and Frank Gohlke, both of whose work points toward the higher level of abstraction in the work of Ray K. Metzker. Without at least two pictures, the passage of time within a photograph remains invisible. With two or more pictures, time can be revealed in numerous ways.

One can go even further with sequential arrays by combining typology and chronometry. A striking example of this is William DeLappa’s understated and lyrical The Portraits of Violet and Al, in which the tropes of the family album combine to form a coruscating analysis of the span of an ordinary marriage and how people mark the passage of the ages. The truly quotidian format of the family album here becomes the foundation and the language for a profound work of art, impossible without the fact of pictures in a sequential array.

And so when I find two or more pictures that obviously match each other, I begin to think about the meaning of a sequence of photographs in vernacular photography. Virtually every anonymous photograph taken with a film camera is a piece of at least one sequence — the sequence of 12, 24 or 36 frames that form the roll of film. Certain photographers, like Paul Berger, would argue that there is another sequence, too: the sequence of all pictures ever taken.

At the very least here are two pictures taken in a sequence. Two different people are featured in the picture, with slightly different facial features and hairstyles but matching clothing. The boys are fairly tall, but lack facial hair or other perceptible markers of age, so it’s safe to place them as probably in their late teens.

I surmise that the boys’ clothing is a uniform of sorts. According to the edge numbering, the photographic paper is from November 1958. The three-line designation “Kodak/ Velox/ Paper” on the verso side of the picture helps confirm this. During that time period, uniforms may even have been enforced in many public schools, but the similarity suggests to me something more formal still. My preferred guess stems from the fact both are wearing neckties. While hardly impossible for a 14 or 15 year-old, wearing a tie together with the rest of the fairly homogeneous uniform suggests to me that they are collegians, in prep school at the very least, and that this picture is possibly taken as an initiation ritual or on a field trip.

Both pictures are slightly different in perspective — one uses fairly rigid horizontals and verticals only, with nary an oblique line except the crossed calves, while the other is slightly off-kilter, none of the lines exactly straight. The former also shows more details: a door in the background, a roof, an archway. The former picture is cropped less tightly and so the top of the post on which the pillory is mounted is visible, as is one of the hand holds and one of the locks for a second set of stocks just to the student’s right.

Here’s a question: Which picture comes first in the series? It’s difficult to know from the pictorial evidence. The shadows are just about the same angle to the sun, and there are no internal timekeeping devices, so these are fairly close in time. If these two photographs are going to be a sequence, it’s much more likely the subject of that sequence will be like the Bechers’ work, typological rather than chronological. Since there are only two pictures, it is the relationship between the two that is the subject — namely, the similarity and difference of two collegians playfully enacting the role of public offenders who’ve been pilloried in the town square. Each of the boys is smiling playfully and in other respects is similar to the other boy, so then the typological study is one of small variations in the “type” known as “newly recruited frat boy” or “preppie.”

One could put them in any order and the typological relationship would hold. For my own part, I would arrange them for a graphical reason like so:

The first picture strikes me as a “better” picture, graphically, with a more harmonious, stabler visual composition based on straight lines. Also, the inclusion of the dark door and the dark gable of the roof at the right of the frame creates a visual separator and link that helps join the second picture to it in a way that reversing the order of the pictures does not.

Adding a third, or fourth, or ninth picture would mean making even more complicated decisions. Though the typological relationship would still remain the same between these two pictures, there would be far more possible connections, visual and otherwise, between other images and these. This particular double is somewhat sloppy in that the composition of each is different because the camera moves. Were this the work of the Bechers, or Rineke Dijkstra, the composition would be fixed and repeated relentlessly throughout the series so as to redirect attention away from compositional concerns back to typological ones. Were this the work of a more fanciful photographer, like William DeLappa or Duane Michals, the composition might vary even more by the final picture in the sequence and operate on both levels simultaneously, as well as on the level of “storytelling.”

The same effect to some degree happens even when two seemingly disparate pictures are placed side by side. The human mind will, by nature, look for a connection between the two. The more pictures are placed side by side on purpose, the more the human mind will look for connections. This same fact is at play in the creation of comics which are, in Scott McCloud’s definition, “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence.” Indeed the rise of the modern comic strip is almost simultaneous with the invention of photography: Nicéphore Niépce‘s heliographs date to within three years of Rodolphe Töpffer’s Les Amours de M. Vieuxbois. And, as with comics, photographic sequences have been devalued as art because of their complexity and their inability to fit neatly within the mythos of the single-image masterpiece by an inspired genius.

That devaluation does not make them less important, but rather more important to study. Only by incorporating the idea of sequential art into photographic history ( and comics into traditional art history) can a comprehensive history of the arts be written. That history will be written not as sociology, not as fashionable po-mo “marks of culture” or “ethnography” or similar bollocks, but as art. And it starts with the easy to ignore, completely pedestrian structure of the silver gelatin roll film, even in the humble sequences of anonymous photographers like this one.

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