Fresh Air

Discussion in 'Philosophy' started by samstevens, Feb 14, 2020.

  1. There's a new Dorothea Lange exhibit at MoMA NY. I'll get to the point of my post after linking to one of the featured photos and asking about it.

    PHOTO by Dorothea Lange

    Before continuing, please consider what you're seeing and how you might describe it and feel about it.

    Now that you've absorbed your impression of it, I'll continue the story.

    The author of The NY Times review of the exhibit relays the story that when Sarkowski first encountered the photo, he said:
    “It is a picture of a hard-faced old woman, looking out of the handsome oval window of the expensive automobile with her hand to her face as though the smell of the street was offending her, and I thought, ‘Isn’t that marvelous?’ That a photographer can pin that specimen to the board as some kind of exotic moth and show her there in her true colors."

    Later, when Sarkowski saw the title, Funeral Cortege, End of an Era in a Small Valley Town, California (1938), the author of the article relates, "he realized that the fancy car belonged to an undertaker, and the expression he took for haughtiness was grief."

    This is by way of introducing the curatorial theme of the exhibit: Lange's pictures require verbal commentary to be read legibly.

    So, I'm interested in hearing your first impression of the photo and your subsequent impression upon seeing the title, if there was a subsequent impression. And I'd also like hearing your thoughts about the curatorial theme itself.

    At first, I didn't see what Sarkowski saw. I mostly saw (without thinking about it much) a strong woman framed strongly and an homage to "woman." It reminded me of a cameo brooch my mother wore.

    On reading Sarkowski's initial description and the subsequent title, I wondered how much difference there was exactly between an expression of haughtiness and one of grief. And, while happy to get the info, wondered how much it actually informed me about what the photograph said to me. I like hearing about context but I try to consider context without necessarily letting it limit my relationship to a photo.

    I also wonder if it's the best example to use to introduce the show. There's a difference between what I hope a lot of the verbal commentary will be about, which is Lange's place in Depression Era photography, and on the other hand specific titles or captions that may seem to provide a basis for interpreting the photos. [I hope to see the exhibit in March and will let you know.]

    How much do I want, if at all, info and facts to change my emotional response to a photo and how much does info do that?

    Last edited: Feb 14, 2020
  2. My first impression was somewhat similar to yours. A frame within a frame, thats what I thought. It's a street portrait, with an oval frame adding nostalgia, like an old photo frame. What interested me is that, her whole face cannot be seen, making her expression somewhat incomplete and probably is what draws multiple interpretations (wonderful for a photo to have such open ended elements, I thought).

    I think, the curatorial theme will draw different reactions from different people. I wonder what "read legibly" means, and perhaps have different meanings to different people. Some like to think in documentary terms, and to them the backstory and accurate reflection of what happened is important. Others like me will probably not read the commentary at the beginning and later check it just for fun. If my own interpretation differs from the commentary, I wouldn't take that as my own failure or that of the picture.

    On a different note, I have sometimes seen misunderstanding from the facial expressions of senior people, where natural wrinkles and contortions in the face are mistaken as indignation. They are really nice people upfront. The truth is, some of them are in constant pain from arthritis or other issues. Old age is never easy, but many people seem to develop a sense of altruism with age, that helps them to cope with their own pain without getting overwhelmed. I have seen this in many instances.
  3. Me, too (and not only seniors). It's why, if a photographer is really intent on conveying a particular emotion, more than just facial expression may be needed.

    Your thought on misreading expressions also led me back to thinking about Szarkowski's [sorry for the lazy spelling in the OP] experience changing from haughtiness to grief when he learned it was a hearse. I amusingly thought, what if the woman in the hearse was an angry sister of the deceased who'd been abused all her life by her sister and was at the funeral only out of obligation and was hardly grieving at the moment (though grief is a complex emotion and has elements of so many others)?

    What role would pinpointing the woman's situation and expression accurately play and what role does our direct connection to the expression and elements of the photo play? And what role does ambiguity play?
  4. a woman is looking directly into the camera as she or we pass by and whatever she was thinking before.. ? her thoughts are now directed to the camera/photographer. I have often seen a similar look in the eyes of people I have caught off guard in street shooting of strangers. It is a look of question for me. My interpretation of the question i read in their eyes is usually dependent on the context. This one I can only see the interaction between woman and camera/me not the wider context. The body lanquage reveals the moment(s) before the interaction and in that there is an open door to ... grief, haughtiness... etc but mostly i find it as reminder that we have interrupted a self reflective moment. So enigmatic it becomes up to viewer.
    The Title 'Funeral Cortege, End of an Era in a Small Valley Town, California (1938)' does not guide me very far beyond explaining the car.
  5. My thoughts parallel Supriyo's to a large degree. Some photos are intentionally documentary, and the degree to which they communicate the facts of their moment is a measure of their success. Other genres are intended as more open to interpretation. The OP's post strikes me as having feet in both camps, as is typical for Lange's work. Inclusion of the "S" bracket on the right side of the frame is a very strong reference to funerary coachwork, and my immediate perception was of a grieving person captured in a most vulnerable moment. However, Lange's composition and presentation here are typical of her strong, evocative work, and invite a deeper consideration of the "meaning" embodied in the image.

    I recall with some emotion an image posted long ago by Supriyo, of his grandmother (right?) in a hospital bed, reaching out to hold the hand of a loved one. It was, at the time, and continues to be one of the most evocative images my friends on PNet have posted. Images which capture and convey the strongest of emotions are often the most powerful. As such, there's danger of their being misused to manipulate public perceptions, a la Riefenstahl's Olympia, an outstanding example of cinematic art, but nevertheless a grotesque tool of Nazi propaganda. Photography, as with most arts, has the power to inform, deceive, enlighten, denigrate, and evoke. I like one member's tag line that reads "It's not what you look at. It's what you see..." The clear misunderstanding on the part of Szarkowski is illustrative of the challenge we face when we impute uninformed meaning to an image, and the danger embodied therein.
  6. A poignant reminder that the decisive moment of a photo is often not limited to the precise moment per se but is of a moment that's part of a flux. It's wonderful to think of a photo's ability to take us beyond the moment in addition to "capturing" it. Maybe we can actually photograph anticipation, prior reflection,... through the cues given to us by gesture and other things. And a viewer does well, as I think you did, to think outside the moment as well as in it.

    It's also noteworthy that you included the importance of the presence of camera and photographer to the picture and what we're seeing. Heisenberg would be proud!
  7. Indeed!

    I do think it's somewhat natural and even a good way to view photos to impute uninformed meaning to an image ... because we're basing it on what we see and the photo's uniqueness can be in reshaping real-world elements that it takes out of context, providing a very different view of them.

    Where viewers sometimes make a mistake is in confusing the above with accuracy. A viewer needn't view with an eye toward accuracy, except in certain journalistic or documentary cases. So, I say, impute all you want, just don't project your imputation onto the real world. Allow yourself to feel without worrying whether it's the right feeling or not.

    That said, it's possible to overdo imputation to the point where the imagination gets so far carried away from the art before it that the art before it and the artist stop mattering and viewer self indulgence takes over.
  8. Reference "Bonfire of the Vanities".
  9. I'd reference Proust's Temps Perdu in regard to onlooker "indulgence (have I mentioned in the last week that I actually read every word of the 7 volumes?)

    However, that is not at all akin to my feelings about the photo. I see it as more related to social criticism, and I'd bet Lange did too.
  10. Can you flesh that out a bit?
  11. It's not a mystery that Lange and many others participating in the FSA, and in "radical" collectives like the Photo League, were socially aware and felt the need for economic and political reform. In the same period, exemplars such as Weegee also photographed the "rich" in ways that did not make them particularly attractive.

    The subject in the photograph is aware that a picture is being taken, and does not like it.
  12. Correct. It is not.
    OK. Thanks.
    Last edited: Feb 15, 2020
  13. On first glance it looks like a v-sign but soon becomes obvious she’s making a hand sign for wankr.

    Bless ‘er
  14. The decorative scroll feature behind the window gave it away for me. She is obviously grieving with her hand over her mouth, knuckles pressed against her upper lip in an attempt to maintain some bit of composure.

    I can see where people with certain socio/political tendencies would interpret it as wealth looking down on others. That speaks to the shading we all give to what we see as a result of our life experiences and personal bias. That is probably why people use the term cliche to refer to repeated themes and images that generally have a universal interpretation.

    Why Do Hearses Have Metal S-Shaped Scrolls Where the Back Windows Should Be?

    “Over the years the landau bars became so ingrained in the public’s mind as a symbol of a funeral car that most hearse manufacturers still tack them onto their limousines as a matter of tradition.”
    Last edited: Feb 15, 2020
  15. This is illuminating. It may just be that Lange had enough photographic vision to elicit the future thrill viewers would get by saying “wank” in public.
    Ludmilla likes this.
  16. I think grief is probably the most reliable interpretation of the emotion on display.
    If any social commentary is there it would be that death is an equalizer.
    It brings grief to all regardless of wealth or social status.
    In spite of popular belief to the contrary, the wealthy experience heartbreak, the pain of loss, just like everyone else.
    Last edited: Feb 15, 2020
  17. I agree with you to some extent on the “shading” aspect of your comment. One of the reasons I posted this is because of that very “shading” question that came up in the review I read and the comments about Szarkowsi’s responses.

    I’m hesitant, though, to associate the “wealth looking down” interpretation with “people with certain socio/political tendencies” since I think people of a wide array of tendencies, even opposing ones, could see it that way. It’s tricky to start imputing socio/political tendencies to strangers responding to art or a photograph without a lot more information, IMO. Some might have those tendencies themselves. Others might simply be responding to what they know about the photographer’s tendencies as opposed to their own. And I imagine, there are more possibilities than those as well.

    That being said, interpreting her as “grieving” likely does not have the kind of socio/political bias behind it you’re talking about but may not be as “obvious” let alone apparent to others as to you. I think it’s a perfectly rational response, though, and appreciate hearing your take on it. I’m not even sure I see grief in the hearse as much as the formality that initially struck me. I can see why others see grief in the woman, but don’t experience that myself either in the woman’s expression or her bearing.
  18. Actually I didn’t draw any precise conclusion in what I said but simply noted (“I can see where one might”) the relationship between bias/experience and interpretation. We all glean a bit of info over time concerning perspectives of individuals who post here regularly.
    So there is considerably more information than a single post.

    The woman’s body language concerning her upper lip is widely recognizable even to the point of cliche. There’s that word again...
    These things stood out to me in the photo....

    “A sign of weakness is trembling of the upper lip, hence the saying keep a stiff upper lip. When a person's upper lip begins to tremble, it is one of the first signs that the person is scared or shaken by experiencing deep emotion.”
    Stiff upper lip - Wikipedia

    On another point.
    The whole personal shading aspect speaks to many of the “likes” accumulated here from posting photos of no great aesthetic quality. Many speak to documentary, nostalgic, or imprecise personal emotion.
    Last edited: Feb 15, 2020
  19. The historical/ factual/social aspects of this photo are irrelevant unless you are a history buff.

    Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar in 1599/1600 and what he wrote about and what he wrote with are irrelevant today unless you are a history buff.

    (It’s been adapted to almost every social scene ever since)

    Or knowledge that photographers are essentially wankrs (by and large).

    Look at the zillion threads on technological aspects of photography.
  20. The History is simply “What Happened”.
    What happened is relevant to interpretation.
    Personal initial reaction notwithstanding.
    That said, It is obviously up to the viewer to make the choice.....

Share This Page