Further Research can be found here under the heading – Formalism click here
Also for further reading my interpretation on – Alfred Stieglitz and his view on Photography as an ‘Art’ click here
Depth and Surface
What is a photograph? It is a flat image printed on a piece of paper. It’s not like a book you pick up and read. The words are written in a way, by the author to build a picture in your mind, so that you get lost in its pages. The author creates a scenario, and uses specific words, to make sure your minds eye sees what they want you to see. But a photograph is just an image, and each and every person looking at it will see something different.
This is a photograph of my grandsons foot, taken in 2006, during a visit to Italy to see my daughter. I find that the emotion it stirs up in me is very strong. I see love, caring and happiness, with a little cuteness built in. I see these because I was there. The grandsons first time on a beach. 10 months old, playing with sand and standing in the sea. I was there the first time he did it. The aesthetics of this image will invoke emotional reaction to many people viewing it. It reeks of innocence and happy times; Holidays and building sandcastles and perhaps the enjoyment of our own youth. Each person will see/feel something different. Someone judging this photograph in a competition may say, why leave the little blob of water above the foot, why put a shell in the picture, why have so much sand when the foot is obviously the subject, when we such programmes as photoshop and elements which would get rid of these distractions. But what are distractions to some, maybe memory evoking elements for another!
The blob of water is there to remind me that the sea is only a few yards away and it was his first sea paddle. The shell is something he picked up and was fascinated by, we would eventually use it to decorate a sandcastle. His foot was feeling the sand, making ripples and enjoying this strange new sensation. You could see in his face that he found wriggling his toes in the sand felt good. I can still see the glint in his eye and the wonder on his face, even though that little one is now almost 10 years old.
Photographs are a moment in time, a click of the shutter. No one except the photographer knows what happened before or after the shot was taken, unlike a novel that brings you in at the beginning and takes you to the conclusion on the last page.
For example take Keith Arnatts’ exhibition of 40 dogs and their owners. (click here) He called out the dogs name just as he pressed the shutter, to get the dog to look at him. The expression on each of the dogs faces was the same; expectant. The dog was saying ‘he called me, what does he want?‘
The same could be said for my image of my husband If I were just to display the after image. After I asked him to look like he was enjoying himself, anyone looking at the photograph would think he was relaxed and having a good time, not the reality of us walking a long way, in the hot sun and in need of a drink to cool down!
Above before and after photographs taken seconds apart!
Temporal and spatial visualisation is created when looking at a photograph for its meaning, and will largely depend on our philosophy and experiences in life. A photograph only shows us a moment in time and our minds eye fills in the blanks of what happened before and after the shutter was clicked.
This being so, and thinking of the photographic example of my husband, a photograph does not reveal the true picture of the reality; of the before and after. As photographers we have the ability to hide more than we reveal, we can make the camera lie, we can try to tell a story, but in the end, the viewer will form their own opinion on the image presented.
Think now about silent films. We had moving pictures and music to convey the ‘feeling’ we should have about what we are presented with. The film director wants us to experience some emotion, happiness, sadness or some other emotion. This he does, by directing the actors facial expressions, which is then enforced by the music played and the way/angle the film is shot.
Take for example the film Jaws. The ‘dum dum dum’ music lets us know that something bad is about to happen, and although we can’t see a shark, we know one is close by. Again in respect to thrillers, imagine a scene where someone maybe outside of their home, be it day or night. The shot taken from behind a bush, with the person in question in the camera shot. This allows us look through the eyes of the stalker, who is situated behind the bush, maybe waiting t pounce. Additionally, the music played will again reinforce the scene, and the emotion the director wants us to experience. But with a photograph our emotions, experience and philosophy come into play, so what we actually see is an image of own interpretation.
So this now begs the question; Is a photograph a copy or representation of reality? What is the best way forward to make sure we can portray the meaning of the image. Some may argue that its aesthetics of an image that draws us to see the beauty of it.
Looking at Manuels Alverez Bravos’ Daughter of the Dancers, below are three reviews of the photograph, each looking at it in a different way, adding a different perspective to what we are meant to see.
1. The J Paul Getty Museum
‘Quote’ With her back to the camera, a girl in a bright white cotton skirt peers into a circular black hole or window cut into a patterned wall with peeling paint. Her head is all but obscured by a wide-brimmed hat that echoes the shape of the portal. She stands on her toes ever so tentatively, her bare right foot overlapping her left as if she is trying to create her own stepping stair. Her right hand disappears into the void as she investigates the unseen contents within. This photograph by Manuel Alvarez Bravo establishes a contrast between her innocence and the fearful unknown.
2. Leonard Folgarit
‘Quote’ This is about seeing and not seeing, about a hole in the wall acting as a round lens letting light into a dark camera interior, about framing of vision, oppositions of dark and light, the curiosity of looking into a dark space and about the figure caught between two objects that capture her image, the hole – her face – and the camera – her body
3. The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 176
‘Quote’ In this picture, as in many of Álvarez Bravo’s photographs, our experience begins with the theme of looking: we must wonder what it is that the girl sees, or what she seeks. It has been suggested that her awkwardly placed feet, with one foot atop the other as she stands on her toes, evokes the figures in Mexican reliefs and carvings made before the Spanish conquest, and that the girl, dressed in traditional Mexican costume, may be interpreted as representing a Mexico searching for its past through the window in the well-worn wall. Clearly, the picture was staged, and we know that the photographer has intentionally provoked our curiosity.
Photography has an inherent power to create mystery because it only describes aspects of things and never tells the whole story. In the hands of a skilful photographer, this capacity to intrigue can become the foundation of an aesthetic, a way of working. Throughout his seventy-five-year career, the Mexican photographer Álvarez Bravo consistently made deeply human photographs rife with enigma.
4. My Review
But what do I see when I look at this flat printed surface? I see a well dressed child, knocking on a window, but no shoes, could she have taken them off and is holding them? We don’t see her right arm/hand, is she holding her shoes in front of her? Her other hand is either deformed or she has a clenched fist, maybe she has her hand inside the window. The bare part of her arm seems thin in relation to the rest of her body. I see her peering through the window, as if looking for someone. She may have been to the front door and knocked, but had no answer. So she decided to go around the building, and look through the window to see if anyone was home. Her crossed bare feet say to me that this child is in a hurry, a little like when we need the toilet and hold our knees together, crossing our feet and doing a little dance. Perhaps she has taken her shoes off to be able to run faster? She is leaning close to the wall as if she needs some sort of support. The emotion it portrays to me, gives a sense or urgency. Her hat flung back, did it annoy her when she was in such a hurry, running? You can just imagine someone running, either hanging on to the hat for dear life or flicking it off so it doesn’t flop all over the place. My review is just another dimension of what the what this flat surface is saying to me. I have looked at this image as made up my own story. I have used my own experience and emotions felt from motherhood.
So building a story around the image is a very personal thing, here we have 4 accounts of what this image is all about. The J Paul Getty Museum description, differs to mine in as much as they quote her right hand being inside the dark window, not missing or clenched. Their description embodies, mystery and fear. Describing the innocence of the child that her bear, crossed over feet portray. This review sends the message that the reviewer is describing what he sees in-front of him/her. The image of a child, the way she is standing, where she is looking, then adds the emotion that they feel when looking at the image; Mystery, fear and innocence.
Whereas, Leonard Folgarit likens the whole image to a camera, something tangible. This description may have come about as he was reviewing a photographer added to this is his personal interest in photography. He talks about elements that a photographer may relate to. Framing, dark and light spaces, lens’ and makes the point that the girl is a representation of the camera itself, she is the camera and the window is the lens. Could it be that he feels she is looking for something interesting to photograph? Many of us go out with our cameras hoping to catch the perfect light, looking for a really interesting image to capture, hoping for a most captivating image….. looking into a dark hole to see if we can find it! it is clear that this review was written by a person whose interest lay in photography.
The Museum of Modern Art, takes a very different view of the image. They compare other photographs by Manuel Alvarez Bravo, and point their review toward Mexican history and culture of the era. This is no doubt taking into account that Manuel Alvarez Bravo, was Mexican and would indeed use his own culture to tell a story. As a museum they would want their review of the image to give as much information as possible. This review is unlike the J Paul Getty museum description as it states the bare facts, without personally felt emotion, but uses the photographers own experience to describe it, ‘quote’ The Mexican photographer Álvarez Bravo consistently made deeply human photographs rife with enigma.
So 4 differing accounts of what this image is all about, this is because we where not there, before and after the shutter what pressed. We do not have the knowledge that the photographer has kept secret. We do not know the true reality or the thought process behind it. We will use our own knowledge, experiences and emotion to fill in the blanks. This is were the aesthetics of an image come into play, are we looking at beauty or something ugly? A bit like the Marmite conundrum, love it or hate it.
The only thing we can be sure is reality, it that there was a girl standing somewhere, for a few moments, looking into a window, being photographed by Álvarez Bravo sometime in his career. The reality and truth of the image is in the time it takes to press the shutter and capture that image! (Unless you use Photoshop to make up a fantasy image that never existed in the first place!!!!)
further reading Laszlo Moholy-Nagy