Encounters with Anonymous: True to Life

Photo Credit: difridi. cc-by-nd.

One of the inescapable truths of monocular photography (i.e. one camera, one lens) is that it creates images that are flat. Because the camera has one eye, it cannot recreate depth perception. Instead, planes compress into each other, distinguished from each other only by the artistic conventions of perspective and similar graphic devices. This compression, together with the distortion caused by lenses themselves, forms the basis of “photographic vision” or as some people call it “seeing like a camera.”

Painters and printers dealt with certain aspects of this photographic vision — a photograph is, after all, a print before it is anything else — on the level of the flat picture plane. The graphical problems among woodcuts and photographs are similar in many ways. Yet the camera brought with it a completely new set of problems such as lens distortion, focus, and double exposure and then reframed, if you will, the old problems such as the frame edge, single point perspective, figure-ground flip and others. Of course these are only “problems” if one thinks of them as such. If one’s goal is to make photography a substitute for human vision these are intractable problems indeed. If one takes the contrary view, namely that these are not problems at all but ripe topics for inquiry, then they are the foundation of photographic art.

All of my favorite photographers spend the bulk of their careers trying to master this unique way in which a camera represents an image. Technicians, rarely satisfied with the state of photography, have generally spent their careers trying to improve upon it, so that pictures are more “true to life.” Usually this entails bringing photographic vision “closer to what the eye sees” by introducing color and improving gamma curves, etc. One of their greatest attempts to “overcome” the monocular quality of photographic vision was to introduce binocular vision into photography, in the form of the stereograph.

The three-dimensional effect created by seeing two pictures taken side by side through a suitable viewer called a “stereoscope” was known as early as 1838. The stereograph took off in England, however, after six million people flocked to the Crystal Palace to behold the first World’s Fair, and a particular souvenir — Lane’s Telescopic Views, a series of engraved stereoscopes — found its way into the hands of people of all classes. The three-dimensional views caught on like a wildfire and began a wave of stereoscopic excitement lasting until about the time of the Franco-Prussian War.

This stereoscopic card is likely from the second wave of stereoscopic views that lasted roughly from 1887 to the Great Depression. The ink stamps on the back are quite plain. There is no studio name, nor a photographer’s mark, nor a publisher’s serial number, leading me to think this comes from a time when such cards had ceased to be rare. The braided hairstyle and the open-shouldered dress suggest further that this was taken no earlier the late 1880s, but before the high necklines and pompadours of the Gibson Girl era. A more fashionable person than I might make a more accurate guess based on the cut and material of the dress.

I’ve restored this picture somewhat to give a realistic look at it. The original is much less clear. The photograph on the right has torn, and someone tried to tape it back together, as one can see from the tape marks in the right-hand border of the card. Also visible are the notches on the left and right borders where the stereoscope would hold the card for viewing. It isn’t visible from a 2D representation of the card, but the gray cardboard on which the stereo pictures lie is slightly curled. The rounded corners on the card, too, help date the stereograph somewhere between 1868 and 1892. My personal guess, all things considered: 1883-1892.

Also, the pictures here are both square. Other stereograph cards in my collection, as well as those visible in the Library of Congress collection for instance have a kind of proscenium-like arc at the top of the picture giving them a theatrical look.

I do not recognize the woman in the photograph. Since stereoscope cards were generally made to be sold to the public, I can assume she had some measure of fame and not merely because she has a kind of classical American beauty. She sits on a fairly plain chaise and the background behind her is painted, rather than three dimensional. I conclude this is likely taken in a studio and not her home, which further suggests that she is a public figure of some renown. Is she an author, a singer, an actress, a suffragette? Hard to say.

It’s difficult to get a real sense of what a stereoscopic card looks like unless one has a viewer, but it’s possible to get an approximation by looking at the two images cross-eyed. One can see thus that this portrait has an interesting kind of depth to it, neither really flat nor really three dimensional. To my eyes it’s more like a pop-up book: there’s distinctly an illusion of receding planes that creates “depth” but everything within each plane is quite flat. Your mileage may vary.

I grew up with GAF View-Masters so the effect is well-known to me. In my childhood a shift had begun away from the colorful, saturated landscapes made for mental tourists toward more commercial products like adaptations of Hanna-Barbera cartoons and Doctor Who. The point seems clear: stereoscopic views are best left as a children’s toy.

Nevertheless, the quest for 3-D effects in photography continues. Experiments in holographic projection have been taking place for decades now, but they tend to lean toward motion picture work rather than stills. I’ve seen some exceptions, as in the work of Al Razutis and other holographers, but as these lean toward painting more than photography they merely reaffirm the rule. Even View-Master itself has become a virtual reality app for smartphones.

Presumably the third dimension is the final frontier for overcoming the limitations of photographic vision. People have been trying to overcome them for over 150 years. But are they really limitations? I have never thought so. The peculiarities of static, monocular, flat photography offer another way of perceiving reality. They have never been, despite what pundits like Sontag and Baudrillard think, a substitute for that reality. Photographic vision is a mode of engaging reality that creatively rearranges one’s perceptions of the actual. This is a strength, not a weakness. It enriches the human experience of vision to see how one might see differently rather than what one might see in the deep imaginations of the mind. With the current emphasis on exotic techniques of virtual reality, it is important to remember Proust’s comment that while it may be a great journey to visit 10,000 differerent worlds, it is also a great journey to visit one world with 10,000 different sets of eyes.

Encounters with Anonymous: Colour My World

Photo: Anne-Onyme. CC0/Public domain

It’s an old picture on the face of it. It’s banal in the old sense: used by the common folk. The print in my hand is 3.5 by 5 inches; the picture content itself is 3 by 4.5 inches. The print has started to curl quite strongly, though the paper is strong. It is glossy on the recto side and plain on the verso.

Overall the print is low contrast, except that the shadows are heavy, though still washed out. By now it has faded, and the paper itself shows the yellowing one tends to associate with old pictures, especially on the recto side. But there’s something different about this print.

It’s in color.

Though it’s been the default since the 1970s, color photography has been controversial among photographers since it was first introduced. To get a sense of the controversy, one has to recall that above all else photography comes out of the scientific laboratories of the early 1800s. The culture of those laboratories was cutthroat at best, and reserved almost exclusively for upper middle-class good ol’ boys in France, England and the United States. Scientific societies actively discouraged amateur investigation and where they could not stop it completely, they crippled it by controlling the dissemination of knowledge through the press.

As Herbert Dingle, a noted gadfly in scientific circles, once wrote: “One of the leading scientific journals will not publish anything ‘of a polemical nature’, which can only mean that, in science itself, it will not publish any criticism of orthodox views. Accept them, and your paper will be considered for publication; question them, and it will not.” A sober example of this is the treatment of Levi Hill, who developed one of the earliest processes, if not the earliest, for color photography in 1851. The American Association of Daguerreotypists, whose photographers were upset that their clients were waiting for Hill’s process to be released commercially so that they could have their portraits in color, had their team of “investigators” declare that Hill was delusional. When Hill finally released the details of his process in 1856, the head of the association sued him for libel and had his book destroyed. Hill’s process lay obscure until it was finally proven to work in 1981 — one hundred thirty years later.

Even to this day you can read the rather snotty article about Hill’s heliochrome process in Wikipedia, in which the entry begins “Levi Hill was an American minister in upstate New York who claimed in 1851 that he had invented a color photographic process.” Not that he was the inventor of an early color photographic process, mind you, but that he claimed to be. This, despite the actual evidence of Hill’s photographs themselves. The blind eye of science strikes again.

In this culture of scientific oppression, then, it fell to renowned scientists with unimpeachable credentials to kick start the research into color photography. Most of them trace their beginnings to the work of James Clerk Maxwell. Maxwell’s great leap was to posit that all colors could be separated into three: red, green and blue. From this fact he suggested that one could take three colorless photographs of the same scene, each through a different filter tinted one of the three colors. When projected together, these three “separations” would overlap, combining to show the original scene in full color.

Maxwell’s friend Thomas Sutton provided the first illustration of the technique in 1861 for a lecture by Maxwell. Because both were scientists in the Royal Society, this passed muster and became the “first” color photograph in history books. Maxwell & Sutton’s process is largely the same one in use today in the modern digital camera. Such color photographs didn’t become truly practical until the Lumière brothers devised their “Autochrome” process around 1907, and even despite constant refinements, did not become standard for amateur photographers until the 1970s.

This print as I hold it is quite faded. The yellowing of the paper is a common enough sign of age. But this is more than just yellow. It’s also too red, because the cyan ink has taken a powder. This is a pretty good sign that the photograph sat in the sun at some point. The photograph is obviously quite old. Just how old one can see from the lab markings on the verso side.

The Kodacolor process was invented in 1942, so this is a rather early print for an amateur. Someone, probably, who had more money than most. The overall composition of the picture is basic. The city divides the picture space neatly in two, blue sky above, blue-green sea below. At the right of the frame, a chain drapes from an unseen post or attachment toward the back of the boat. A human figure in a red shirt and brown pants, I think, stands in profile at the left end of the chain link, looking left and upward — not at where the boat is actually going. A rope of some sort hangs from the bow. At the far left of the picture frame is a post or column or pipe of some sort.

The picture is in relatively sharp focus. From the aspect ratio 2:3, this is a picture from an early 35mm camera. The skyline reminds me of Seattle’s, but I am less familiar with this view than I should be. I cannot therefore guess the location or circumstances. The good thing is that this allows me to approach the photograph neutrally. As I think about it, it’s a historical curio — I have no other Kodacolor prints from this early a date. I am naturally curious to see what it what it looked like originally.

So I put together a “fair copy” version of the photograph. This is what I came up with:

The version here still shows marks of age, but the color looks closer to my memory of Kodacolor prints. I recall that Kodacolor film always had very delicate yet lush blues, with paler greens than the Fujicolor and Agfa. Blues have never looked very good in photographic prints but Kodacolor always struck me as the best. Were this a “modern” digital print, everything would be much more saturated and have an overall harder, sharper look, but this version here captures for me the sensation of early color film.

And so we come to the first reality of color photography. Color provokes emotion. Moreover, color provokes emotional memory. The old saw among photographers and historians is that black-and-white photography is “abstract” while color photography is “realistic.” Color photography is realistic in the sense that most people see in color. It is unrealistic in a different sense: people remember colors differently from how they see them, and emotional memory trumps reality every single time.

An example is here. To be consistent within the picture, the sky here should probably be less blue, somewhat closer to the blueness of the water perhaps. But my emotional memory of Kodacolor film tells me the skies were always bluer, so I corrected them to be more blue. When I say that “this version here captures for me the sensation of early color film” I am telling you that I am more interested in sensation than I am in so-called reality. I would suggest that every single viewer has the exact same opinion when it comes to color photographs.

This photograph is fairly pedestrian. If it is a picture of Seattle from 1948, then it predates the Washington State Ferries system by three years, and could only be a ferry from the ill-fated Black Ball Line. Indeed it may be taken from one of the very last runs of the Black Ball Line ferries before they ceased service. But this is speculation. What is certain is that this photograph has, in a sense, been made hundreds of thousands of times before: the harbor, the ferry, the sky, the sea, one figure in the foreground. It is a regular trope of ferry tourism. Nothing within the picture clearly distinguishes it from any of the others within that trope.

I can only conclude therefore that the photograph has a personal meaning as a record of a trip across the water. Since the figure in the foreground has not posed for the camera as would be common in an amateur photography, it is highly possible that he or she was unaware of the camera at the time, so the subject beyond the subject matter is likely to be the pictorial beauty of the harbor itself, rather than a portrait of a person.

Would this picture be as effective in black-and-white? While the trope would remain the same, and the photograph would still work as a memory jog or prop to talk about one’s trip across the water years ago, I think the photograph would lose a certain element of beauty from the color contrast between the sea and sky.

Thus we come to a second reality of color photography. Some photographs are evocations of color itself, and color is indispensable to that particular magic; many more are not.

Pairing this with the first reality of color photography, one can make a tentative statement about color photography in the vernacular: namely, that amateur photographers rely on the “realism” of color as a way to annotate or evoke a particular emotional moment. Color photography may have a more direct and obvious pathway to emotion than monochrome.

I suggest then that we modify the old saw about “abstract” monochrome and “realistic” color. Instead, let me replace it with another reductive statement: that monochrome photography is more for the brain than the eye. Where black-and-white photography encourages a viewer to remember and think, color photography encourages one to remember and feel. Obviously brain and eye are inseparable and both kinds of photography do both things to some degree. But this statement acts as a kind of baseline. It also hints at the long-standing prejudice against color photography among fine art connoisseurs, and the intellectual snobbery within that prejudice. The mark of a successful photographer is that she can make both types work toward their contrary purpose: intellect in color, emotion in monochrome.

I wager that this picture was not designed to do much more than it does: mark a quiet moment of clarity and remembrance. And yet, for virtually every photograph ever made, that is enough. Such photographs make people stop and wonder. That wonder has become the foundation of modern color photography, not just among amateurs but also among professionals. Whether one accepts Levi Hill’s work as the origin or not, color photography has always been a field dominated by amateurs. One must explore the wonder in anonymous amateur color photography — and by extension in the professional “commissioned” photography of fashion, science, documentary etc. — if one is even to begin theorizing about the “art” photographs of William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Joel Meyerowitz, Martin Parr, et al. As usual, the real history lays buried in the mundane, waiting to be exhumed.

Encounters with Anonymous: News

Photo Credit: ricardomelisiario. cc-by-nc-nd.

Somewhere, some scholar in a fevered dream has decided to come up with arbitrary “genres” of anonymous photographs.

I’m always skeptical of such ventures. The increasing genre hair-splitting of popular music, for instance, has done far more harm than good. More than anything else, it has turned music into a game of tribal identification and made listeners ripe for narrowly targeted marketing algorithms — which then naturally reinforce the tribal divisions. Such algorithms render people virtually incapable of finding something outside of their “predicted” classification, and weakens popular music itself as a force for uniting rather than dividing people. Good for marketers, bad for listeners as a mass and a force for change.

The basis for my skepticism has always been the problem of control. Who decides on the genres? For what reason? Who controls their use and application? As Ned Rorem once remarked, a composer never gets up in the morning and says “Today I shall compose some Neo-Romantic music!” And so it is with the decision to enforce genre classifications in any thing. Once artists begin to apply generic classifications to themselves, the jig is already up.

Myself I am not extraordinarily concerned with classifications and genre creation. But it is obvious to me that on the subject of anonymous photography there is much sorting-out to do if not for academic reasons then purely conversational ones. But where to start?

I am interested in what A.D. Coleman calls the “functions” of quotidian/vernacular photography. In his view the three primary functions are self-portraiture, diary, and the family album. But he wrote that well before the ubiquity of digital photography. I think the boundary lines have moved, and photography writers have not kept up.

For instance, self-portraiture has yielded to the rather more vapid “selfie.” The family album, as a physical object, has all but disappeared among those parents I know under the age of 30 and I suspect it’s endangered among those 31-40, and even those near 50. Whatever else it was as a function of quotidian photography, the family album was always an intimate, unique object — the antithesis of photography’s innate reproducibility. In the world of ubiquitous digital devices, however, there is no need, and little respect for a unique object.

That leaves the diary. The contemporary diary has become absorbed in recording and measurement enough to include the selfie as subset of marking daily progress. But in the digital world it has yet to fill the function of the family album, though it has eroded that function in many ways. The near omnipresence of both digital recording devices and social media in American life now ensures not only that virtually everyone will keep a diary, but that this diary will be public where it is not utterly uninteresting to its editor (and often even then, as people who peruse Instagram surely know).

What we need is a clearer division of the functions within the modern diaristic impulse. Certain tropes of silver gelatin photography carry over to the digital realm, but some do not. It would be useful to identify various tropes within both kinds of photography and compare them.

In this example, far from contemporary diary function, comes one of those kinds of images about which I have been puzzling.

At first glance one can see this is a photograph in an aspect ratio roughly 3 x 5. The border is intriguing, quite unlike anything else I’ve shown in this series. It’s decorative though the paper is merely a classic glossy white. I cannot discern exactly what paper on which this is printed, and I’m unwilling to do any chemical tests. Instead I’ll guess based on the border — I’ve never seen this particular picture border in any picture taken after 1941 — and the aspect ratio, and the typeface on the board, that this was made between 1930 and 1941.

There seems to be a light leak in the camera that marks the lower right corner of the picture. There is no perspective correction, and the aspect ratio is common, so this is likely done with a small format camera by an amateur photographer. Further suggesting this is the overall composition of the picture, with no real regular arrangement of shapes, tones or lines, and a largely empty foreground. The main subject matter of the picture appears to be a bulletin board of some sort, but it is well into the upper third of the picture before it’s even visible, and even then the top of it is cut off quite brusquely.

The setting of the picture is somewhere surrounded by trees. The architecture of the house is industrial, without decoration, and with nothing visible through its casements. The ground, both in the foreground and background, has no foliage. It appears to be nothing but dirt and possibly dried mud. The bulletin board itself is immaculate, as if it were brand new or at least freshly painted. The board is also the highest point of contrast in the picture, specifically the contrast between the board’s brightly illuminated, probably white paint and the dark supports that hold what appears to be a railing of some sort. On it are three fairly large, legible words: permanent, current, and daily. The words sit above what appear to be three cut-out windows. In these windows are what appear to be rectangular pieces of paper posted in two sections of three-column arrangements under “permanent” and “current,” with a somewhat less rigid arrangement under daily. There is not a human figure to be seen, even as a shadow.

Provisional interpretation: This is a photograph of a newly constructed bulletin board, designed to deliver “the news” to people who live within a short radius of it, most likely at a camp of some sort, possibly a barracks.

While the “news” is certainly a kind of diary, if this is a “diary” function of photography at play here there are not enough internal clues to indicate why or what about this is important. The subject matter is banal, and treated matter-of-factly, framed in a way that calls no real attention to anything in its design. So why did someone find this important enough to photograph? It’s possible that it was someone taking a photograph because someone asked for a permanent record of just how orderly and clean the bulletin board could be. It might even have been the effort of the photographer himself. There is no way to know unless one knows the picture maker.

Thus one of the differences between a visual diary and a written diary becomes apparent. Written diaries concentrate on the internal world of the writer, those things which cannot be represented visually. The visual diary is always a collection of visual objects that are not tied together by psychological markers and whose “story” must be explained by its maker in words, either via oral narration or written exposition. Furthermore, a single entry in a written diary, while incomplete, nevertheless makes sense as the thoughts of a person, and would be largely consistent with that person’s presentation of self in the social world. A single token from a visual diary, however, is likely to be unrepresentative. To get a real sense of someone’s physical reality would require a sequence of photographs rather than isolated images.

In the written diary, a writer often concentrates on the quotidian but that quotidian is infused with the writer’s attitude toward it, so it remains connected to other entries as a part of the writer’s “life story.” Quotidian photography eludes such analysis by refusing to bear its makers’ individual attitudes. That is exactly what makes photographs so easy to decontextualize and recontextualize in completely inappropriate ways. The written diary fights this more easily in the realm of thought because thoughts are human, fleeting, and variable. The visual diary supposedly confirms an invariable “reality.” But again…whose? Who defines that reality, and to what end?

This particular picture carries no markers of why it was made. Yet it is a kind of picture strategy one sees over and over: some object, photographed in full, in focus, in the center of the frame, calls out the the viewer: I exist. But without the picture maker, that existence, while “real,” remains impenetrable. There are billions of other images exactly like this.

Encounters with Anonymous: Stock Photography

Image by Hans Braxmeier via Pixabay CC0/Public domain license.

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 in 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.

Encounters with Anonymous: Democracy in Silver

Photo credit: Orin Zebest. CC-BY-SA 2.0

One of the long-time bromides about photography is that it’s “the democratic art.” Yet looking through old pictures, and indeed through virtually all the books on anonymous photography, one can see easily that the so-called democracy of photography is far from representative.

I’ve pored over several thousand anonymous photographs in my day. Regarding portraits, I’d guess that no more than 1% of them contained portraits of African Americans. If photography were evenly distributed, and reflected the population of the country, this number should be at least ten times as high. But it isn’t. It’s absurdly low.

One might argue that African Americans are greater hoarders of their pictures, or that their snapshots and such do not wind up in the same places as other anonymous photographs. However, that would only raise the question: why? Why are vernacular African American images hidden from view in a way that images of even working class and poor whites are not? African American images fetch ridiculously high prices on eBay. In thrift stores and flea markets I’ve been to around the country they are nearly non-existent. The best shot one has at seeing them is in rarefied conditions, like the Beth and Stephan Loewentheil collection at Cornell University, or the Randolph Linsly Simpson African-American Collection at Yale. They are, in a very real sense, curiosities.

In a real democracy, however, such images would not be curiosities. They would be banalities, the same way as images of middle-class white Americans from the same period. Equality in democracy means that every citizen has the freedom to be mediocre: to be unexceptional, to be a regular member of a community, to be left alone; not to be prodded with scientific instruments like the camera, not to be displayed, not to be required to perform for the elite. That images of African Americans are not considered unremarkable is proof that there is no photographic democracy, and there never was.

So it is deeply rewarding when I do find an image like this of African Americans simply living their lives, being average.

Judging from the paper this is printed on, and the clothing, this picture most likely dates from 1910-1922. The hats are large, with wide brims, but not with the piled height of the early 1900s. The clothes are formal but the women hardly look like Gibson Girls. Three women and one man are standing near a train. The shadows indicate it’s near midday, maybe two hours before or two hours after noon. Two of the women are wearing white; the remaining woman is in a much darker color dress of a slightly older fashion with a high collar, and sports some jewelry as well. The man wears an open jacket and what appears to be a detachable Arrow Collar with no tie but rather a clip.

I’m guessing this is a fairly warm day, either spring or summer, judging from the lighter colors, although the bogus rule of “no white after Labor Day” hadn’t been codified yet. It is perhaps a Sunday after church, but this is difficult to prove from the visual evidence. The older couple seem to have dressed for somewhat cooler temperatures. Perhaps they have been traveling at night, or early morning. If this is before 1918 the standard time zones would be quite different from today.

The position of the bodies in the picture is central and has the two younger women in white facing the train; the somewhat older looking man and woman have their backs to the train. Further linking them is skin tone. All the women are fairly light-skinned; the man is darker in complexion. The two younger women’s features are harder to discern but I would not be surprised if they were sisters. Are the older man and woman related? Are the four together a family? Hard to tell, though the close proximity of their bodies suggests they are close emotionally.

The other interesting question to ask is: Who is holding the camera? The three people facing the camera are not smiling. Indeed the younger woman turned halfway toward the camera has an expression that is quite sour, even a glare. The older man and woman are not even looking at the camera; their gaze appears to be focused somewhere beyond the frame to their left, and they appear to be looking at the same thing — not the photographer. My own experience as a photographer reminds me that similar things have often occurred when I’m on a photo shoot at a wedding or mitzvah or cotillion, and some knucklehead decides to take out his camera just as I’m about to do the family portrait. I don’t know whether that’s the case here, but it’s possible.

The ratio of this picture is 6.5cm x 11 cm, which suggests to me that it was made with a camera that takes 116 film, perhaps a Kodak 1A or Folding Brownie 2A, or Ansco Buster Brown. Any of these cameras would place the picture after 1909.

With the evidence here, the interpretation I prefer is that this is a photograph taken on a Sunday morning, circa 1911. Two young women have gone down to the train station to pick up their mother and father, who have arrived ready for church after traveling out of town. They have been riding in the “separate but equal” Negro section of the train overnight, and since they’ve not been home yet are still dressed for yesterday evening’s weather. At the train station, they are quite a sight: all dressed up, elegant, fresh. The parents are watching the baggage being taken into the station, and before the baggage is unloaded, the eldest daughter is gossiping about the weekly news. The eldest son of the family is waiting patiently and decides he has nothing to do but to fiddle with his new camera. As he looks up he sees a good arrangement of his whole family and opens his folding camera quietly — or so he thinks. Just as he puts the camera up to his eye, his youngest sister glares at him. He laughs at her and clicks the shutter. He will probably tease her about it later. There will be stories.

For a moment, all the struggles of Jim Crow America have faded away. The family is reunited. Everyone is safe. There is much to discuss, about the trip, about home, about work.

Just another Sunday in just another town. An unremarkable picture from a family of five, struggling just to be their own unremarkable selves in the land of opportunity they were promised fifty years ago. For them democracy is a long way off, but this photograph will remind them of a time when even they could believe they were simply a normal family, with the normal lives that White America takes for granted and minorities to this very day continue to seek.