Encounters with Anonymous: Spectacularly Quotidian

Photo: Oiluj Samall Zeid. CC-BY-NC-ND

I had another article prepared but then it snowed in Seattle.

With the exception of a couple stints in South Asia and Europe, I’ve lived in Seattle all my life. Snow is rare. The annual average is 5.9 inches, compared to the national average of 26.3 inches. In 168 years since the formal founding of the city, there have been eight truly “big snows.”

Snow therefore serves as it does in many other mild temperate climes the purpose of spectacle, not least of which is the spectacle of people daring to drive the 23% grade hills while we wiser natives sit back with popcorn and smile.

Perhaps it is the deep human memory of the last great Ice Age that leads so many people to be photographically obsessed with snow. There are certainly enough “snow pictures” to turn it into a veritable sub-genre, both of landscape and of portraiture.

This anonymous photograph belongs to the former classification: landscape/snow-covered. One can instantly recognize it as “one of those pictures.” Immediately familiar. Completely quotidian.

This particular picture may look even more quotidian than most. Its color has faded. The picture area is 3 1/8″ by 3 1/8″ in the so-called square format. Squares tend to balance and make everything appear at rest and without motion which makes it difficult to compose subject matter dynamically. This is not a dynamic picture. The only oblique or irregular lines in the entire picture are the radial lines of the trees deep in the background and the slight arch of the roof which leads the eye up and out of the picture. Well over half of the picture is white from the snowfall, including the entire bottom half of the frame, and though the picture is in color, this is about as monochromatic as it gets. Combined with the picture’s dominant horizontal lines in the house, and the repeated rectangles of the wall, window frame, chimney, lampshade, and porch, the overall composition emphasizes silent stability.

Such composition also makes it difficult to date this photograph. Because it depicts what Stephen Shore calls “still time” in which nothing is moving or could even have moved on its own, the picture could exist in almost any place, almost any time. There are very few clues otherwise. On the verso of the picture, there is no handwriting. The only marks are the faint “A Kodak Paper” words repeated in pattern. That, and what looks like an old-school grille antenna for television reception on the roof, tells a viewer that this is from the mid 1960s at earliest, and perhaps as late as the early 1980s, though this is doubtful.

I wager, however, that the date is unimportant. The important thing is the snow. It takes up about two-thirds of the whole picture. This photograph is not likely taken in the Seattle area, but if it had been it would depict a most unusual level of snowfall. The brick wall of the porch shows snow piled up on it that is about a fourth of the total height of the wall. This indicates, for a four foot wall, at least a foot of snow has fallen. None of it has been disturbed. There are no footprints, no tire tracks, no ski skids, no trails carved out by dint of a shoveling. There is, about a third of the way up from the bottom of the picture, a change in tonality and what look to me like two fairly gentle curves, but this strikes me as a marker of where the house’s yard ends and the sidewalk and street begin. The rest is plain: A very dark house is surrounded by a very bright unbroken blanket of white snow.

It would be a little too simple to say the purpose of this photo was, to its maker, merely to provide evidence of the snow. No doubt evidence exists; like all photographs this certainly provides “proof.” But the complete absence of writing on the photograph suggests that evidence is not required. I think, rather, that this snow was so unusual to the photographer that even a fairly poor picture would serve its function.

That function is to jog the memory.

There is no writing on the verso of this photograph because there need not be. All the photographer would need here would be to see the picture, even with its vagueness of detail, and the photographer would instantly remember, “Oh this is that one winter where we came back from Christmas vacation and the house was buried in the biggest snowfall I’ve ever seen.” Or some such tale told with great certainty and animation as though it were the most important story ever told.

Lots of pictures are taken purely for evidence — consider how many photograph there are for licenses, membership cards, profile pictures, etc. Lots of pictures are understood by most people to be nothing more than this, a marker of the presence of something/someone before the camera lens at some time. But as anyone who’s ever sat through a paternal slide show or a maternal kvelling over a photo album has seen, this is not their main purpose. The main purpose of photos like this is to serve as a token, with that token later to be spent on personal storytelling.

Disciplined photographers learn to “see within the rectangle.” What is not in the rectangle does not exist, as the wisdom goes. Untrained photographers get caught up in their own 3-D recollections and push the button on their cameras thinking that the image they see will correspond exactly to what is in their heads. And because human emotion is strong, and humans’ immediate need for confirmation is even stronger, most photographs will seem to be what the photographers had in their heads. But only till the immediacy wears off. As memory grows and immediacy declines, one is left with an image that is disconnected.

The only way to reconnect those images is through personal narrative, either spoken or written or both. That’s the purpose behind the old slide show, or the Facebook Timeline that is its immediate descendant. Cynics suggest that these things serve to “curate” one’s public image. I’m inclined to think, rather, that the more immediate function is personal.

Surely I’m not alone in having the experience of a friend or relative say, “Remember that one time with that girl where we did that one thing?” as one looks on in quizzical disbelief. What is always missing in exchanges like this is the image in the other person’s head. If one only had that picture, everything would make sense.

People photograph — even the most inartistic, sloppy, banal, barely discernible things — not as evidence but as prompt. Those pictures connect one’s own personal memory to the other participants in the story as an act of sharing, both for confirmation of history and communion of emotion. They become stitches that sew together personal narratives.

Anonymous photographs have lost all of their connection to personal narrative. They mark where stitches of time and memory have come undone. The current trend is to try to bring them back into the religious fold of gallery, archive and museum culture by turning everyone into curators, with of course the established gallery and museum curators telling everyone how it should be done.

I think this trend is vulgar. The unknown photographer who photographed this snow-filled picture did not need the approval of museum curators or even their low-level versions as “camera clubs.” The photographer saw, wanted to remember how to begin to tell a story to another person, pointed the camera, clicked the shutter, and sent the film off to a lab. No permission asked, no permission necessary.

Categories 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

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