I guess my love of photographs will be no secret to regular readers of this blog. A good photograph, like any good work of art, is a conundrum that obliges us to think, feel, and engage more deeply with existence. Which means that a good photograph is also good to write about.
Because the following essays are roughly 500 words long, rather than trying to say everything that can be said about the photograph, I am obliged to concentrate a single aspect of it. I have not chosen the typical ‘paedo’ photograph – being less interested in images whose primary focus is sexual, and more interested in photos that raise aesthetic, philosophical and sociological issues around childhood.
Alfred Stieglitz – Child with Striped Dress (the Younger Raab Child), (1907)
Sometimes it’s hard to know to what extent one likes a photograph because it’s good, and to what extent one likes it because the things it depicts are good to look at.
Take, for example, Alfred Stieglitz’s autochrome of the younger Raab child. Does the photograph hold my attention because of the way it represents its contents? Or because the younger Raab child is beautiful, intriguing and good to look at?
Another way of asking this is: which experience would be the better: looking at the photograph? or somehow finding oneself present when the photograph was taken, and observing the actual scene in front of Stieglitz’s lens?
My initial instinct is that no child-lover would prefer looking at a photograph of a beautiful child to being in that child’s actual presence, even if only for a few seconds.
But this is to forget how badly our dreams translate into Reality.
We have all, in fact, spent many, many moments in the presence of children such as this girl – on the street, in the queue at busy supermarkets, at social gatherings, at home-time outside a local primary school, at the local park, in our jobs… And these ‘moments’ have rarely had the depth, intensity, perfection and durability that this photograph offers us.
When, in real life, I’ve been affected by an unknown child’s charm or beauty, the experience has usually been transient and shallow, swallowed-up by Time, and drowned out the noise and mess of life. And any pleasure such glimpses and encounters gave was undermined by an awareness that the child was profoundly unattainable, that she was barely aware of me, and that if the she were aware of me, she would almost certainly not reciprocate my romantic interests.
If I were present at the taking of this photograph I suspect that I would come away similarly disappointed at the mundanity of it all, the dullness of the scene in real life, disappointed that the child was not the mysterious beauty represented by the photograph – just a normal little girl, and disappointed in how little interest the child showed me.
I would certainly not have been able to stare into those dark eyes for long minutes on end, or have her reciprocate timelessly with the same soft-intense gaze she gave the camera’s lens.
The ‘magic’ we almost take for granted in the photograph would be notable by its absence.
The best photographers, whilst shooting, never really see the magic which their most successful photographs, once processed and printed, so powerfully reveal. At best they sense or suspect it. This is because good artists work at the limits of their comprehension, ambitions and capacities. They are grasping at things that lie just beyond their reach.
A good photograph is not a poor substitute for the real thing. A good photograph shows us magical things that we could never have perceived, even had we been stood next to the photographer as he released the shutter. The Raab child’s gaze is one of those magical things. There are many others in this image.
William Klein – Dance in Brooklyn, New York (1955)
We generally prefer depictions of people to be clear and legible. If a person is out of focus, or too far away to assert their individuality, or in some way obscured, we tend to move on to another, more legible image.
But some photographs and paintings perversely refuse to let us have things easy and, despite the illegibility of their subjects, intrigue us and hold our attention—art has this in common with sports and games: it is at its most rewarding when it makes us struggle and pushes us to dig deeper.
William Klein’s Dance in Brooklyn, New York is an example of such a photograph. It seems to pose the question of how little visual information do we need to find someone beautiful.
The children in this photograph were moving while the exposure was made. Klein’s camera (the shutter probably set at 1/15th or 1/30th of a second) has captured this movement as smears, blur and the loss of form and detail.
These, and the coarseness of the grain, have reduced the face of the girl in this photograph to a few broad lines and surfaces. It has the look of an African mask.
The reading of the human face depends, more than with any other part of the body, on the legibility of fine detail—think of how little difference there is between a genuine smile and that same smile held too long and grown stale; think of the kind of details that allow us to distinguish identical twins.
One would expect, given this degree of illegibility, that it would be impossible to get any sense of the girl’s beauty or personality. Yet the little that comes through still manages to give a strong sense of a slim, shapely italic face.
And despite the camera’s imperfect, chaotic rendition of her gesture it has nevertheless captured something that a faster shutter speed (which would freeze the action), or a movie camera, would not: the girl’s energy, grace, and audacity, her confidence, playfulness and sense of humour. There is a trance-like sense of abandonment in the angle of her head and in her open mouth; her eyes at first appear to be looking at the photographer, but a subversive reading has them rolled back into her head, as if in ecstasy.
The photograph offers us a beauty that is especially poignant because it ultimately eludes us: we never really “see” this child. All we get is a tantalising glimpse of a personality whose vigour was imperfectly, and beautifully captured, for a fraction of a second some 62 years ago.
Diane Arbus – A Child Crying, New Jersey (1967)
There’s something magical about a lens, especially the kind you find on the medium-format film camera that Diane Arbus used for this photograph.
These lenses present to the world a large, perfectly smooth convex surface (of a diameter to be measured in inches, not millimeters). Beyond this is a tunnel enclosing multiple glass surfaces receding into darkness, each surface giving off its own little distorted reflection.
Children of this girl’s age are fascinated by such lenses. They come up close and stare into their depths. If you let them, they will press their eye up against them. Most photographers are unhappy about this; toddlers tend to be sticky with sugar, crumbs, tears, saliva and worse. And lenses are awkward to clean, easily damaged and expensive.
But Diane Arbus knew that great photographs don’t happen when you’re trying to keep your equipment clean. She also knew that the best portraits are a kind of love triangle in which the photographer, the subject and the lens exert an equal fascination on one another. This photograph would be thrown out of many photography competitions and photo-clubs; it breaks too many “rules”. For a start, a crying child is not a fit subject for a photograph and the photographer should have used a longer focal length and put more distance between herself and the subject. But what is the right viewing distance for photographing a crying toddler?
We don’t comfort crying babies at arms-length, but hold them tight against us. The world of this photograph is that of the hands-dirty parent, not of the professional baby photographer, paid to present babyhood at its most appealing and reassuring.
The girl is poised on the knife-edge between two states: the self-absorption of crying and a reengagement with the world. At first it’s not clear in which direction this transition is heading: is this a happy child provoked to tears by the attentions of a lady pushing a camera in her face? or is this an unhappy child being distracted from her crying by the strange object she’s been presented with? The girl’s eyes are so powerful that it takes a few moments to notice the signs that the girl had already been crying when Arbus intervened and stanched her tears—the flushed cheeks, those perfect tears rolling down her jaws.
Looking at this photograph I have to remind myself that it is normal and healthy for children of this age to cry like this. Not only does the intensity of her crying seem disproportionate to its likely cause, but the suffering expressed seems to exceed what a human mind and body can experience or endure. This is probably a result of misapplied empathy; when I see a child crying like this I effectively ask myself the question: what would it take to make me cry like this? And I can imagine no loss, heartbreak or sorrow that could bring me to the tears, which, in a child of this age, are provoked by maybe the softest of falls or a refused lolly.
Mary Ellen Mark– The Damm family in their car, Los Angeles, California (1987)
A phenomenon that embodies the disinterested cruelty of Time is hiding in plain view. I first noticed it several decades ago whilst walking down my town’s high street.
A small family was approaching me from the opposite direction. The two parents looked to be in their early to mid-twenties, my own age at the time. But their appearance betrayed, maybe even boasted, the harshness of their lives—a harshness arising maybe from adverse circumstances (the economic base of the region had recently been destroyed), but also from bad living, as evidenced by the cigarettes, the tattoos, what looked like needle marks on the mother’s arm, their loud speech, laced with obscenities, and the father’s strutting walk that signaled a readiness for violence.
Between them skipped a girl of about six whose unspoiled delicacy was reminiscent of an upper-class child in a period drama. She was strikingly beautiful, with inquiring, intelligent eyes, and a face still friendly to the world. Her physique and her bearing had the sprung vigour of a young wild animal.
Despite the contrast between this girl and the adults who accompanied her there could be no doubt as to their kinship: both the man and the woman were recognisable in the girl’s features. And presumably the mother, when a little girl, had looked as beautiful and unspoiled as her daughter did now.
The family in Mary Ellen Mark’s photograph (Crissy aged 6, Jesse 4, their mother Linda 27 and stepfather Dean 33) were homeless and living in their car when Mark spent a week with them in 1987.
The photograph contains a grim equation: we can subtract the appearance of little Crissy from that of Linda, her mother. The resulting difference is the sum of the physical changes Time brings plus the traces that Life has left on Linda.
Time simultaneously grows us and wears us away. We are like young mountains that are simultaneously raised up by tectonic movements and eroded by the harshness of the environment, leaving crags, crevices, alluvium, screes, glaciers and valleys on their surface.
The article accompanying Mark’s photos (written by journalist Anne Fadiman) makes it clear that when this photo was taken Crissy was already all too familiar with the difficulties of life. But they had not yet left a visible trace. Eight years later Mary Ellen Mark would revisit the Damm family. In the resulting photographs Crissy’s appearance has begun to speak eloquently of the life she has been made to lead.
Henri Cartier-Bresson – Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy (1951)
Difficult and unspectacular, the Distant Figure is a motif that, by its very nature, demands neglect.
Yet it is a motif that we constantly encounter in our lives and which provokes strong emotions: when we leave our homes, are not most of the people we see far away? And have we not all had dreams in which the sight of a friend walking away, unaware of our presence, too far off to hear us calling, fills us with unbearable melancholy and loneliness?
Distant figures are also surprisingly common in art, especially in photography: the further away the camera probes the more the world is promiscuous, the more space there is for some stray figure to occupy. If the challenge of Still-Life is what to include within a constrained setting, the challenge of Landscape Photography is what to do when one has no power to exclude, but only to wait or change one’s viewpoint.
We respond in interestingly different ways to distant figures in photography and distant figures in real life.
In real life we know that a child who occupies only a fraction of a percent of our field of vision is no less a person than the child whose hand we are holding. And we know that in real life the distance can be bridged by taking suitable measures, such as calling out, waving, running or sometimes just waiting.
But in photography the distant figure will never come closer or be reached: physical distance becomes existential distance. And as figures recede, first their individuality then their humanity is lost. Further on they register as just blurs and smears. Finally they disappear.
In Cartier-Bresson’s photograph every girl in the scene has noticed the photographer—who, being 42 when he took this photograph, was still young enough to catch a girl’s eye. Everyone else seems oblivious to him. As if to underline this, the only adult eyes we are in a position to see are crossed out by the wire-work arch at the bottom of the steps.
The three girls stood in front of the church door are engaged with the photographer at a distance that balances caution and curiosity. Above them we read the invocation to the Virgin Mary: ‘Ora pro nobis’. According to ancient Jewish custom Mary was betrothed to Joseph at the age of 12—not much older than the eldest of these girls.
One of the girls is making a gesture reminiscent of the women carrying trays of loaves on their heads, and which echoes the metal arch in the foreground, the lintel above the church door and the curve of the distant mountain. Her gesture at first appears playful and balletic. But a closer inspection reveals that she is actually holding in place upon her head something large and dark. Her gesture is one of burden, not of grace.
A fourth girl is emerging ‘de profundis’. Her upturned face catches the light and is joyful, as if she had turned the corner and recognised the distant man with a camera as a long-lost friend.