Stranger (symbols)

Discussion in 'Philosophy' started by Julie H, Jul 29, 2017.

  1. .........

    This will probably be the last of the 'symbols' threads because we are finally seeing good activity in this forum: other threads that are getting a lot of good response — Yay! Yippee! Yahoo! [doing the Snoopy dance].


    This last symbol, 'stranger,' has turned out to be really interesting to me. Here's why:

    I can't find a single photograph of 'stranger.' This was a complete surprise to me.



    Stranger, Etranger. While the word itself suggests uncertainty, the image of stranger evokes a visceral reaction. As the stranger appears in the doorway ... we are called to ask, "Who enters? Friend or foe?" The mysterious other, this foreigner appears and time stands still. We are left not knowing whether to move toward or away from this "alien" being.

    ... In primitive cultures the stranger was seen as an enemy, a threat to the cohesion of the group or clan. Borders or territories were fiercely protected, and the stranger who entered was either captured or killed so as not to contaminate the group with his foreign spirit or magic.

    ... In dreams, the stranger makes his appearance as a shadowy figure, an "unknown other" crossing the boundaries from the unconscious to the conscious. ... Jung describes the unconscious as "the Unknown as it immediately affects us" and developed the technique of active imagination to deal with these alien images from our dreams. In integrating these unknown parts we work toward wholeness, a way of going home to ourselves. — The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images

    The three pictures that the book quoted from shows to illustrate its text don't seem strange to me at all. They show people in shadowy places or alone in a remote place. That doesn't seem at all alien to me. Who hasn't been there? I feel sympathy for the implied beings even though faces aren't shown in two of the pictures: the third is highly stylized.

    In photography, if we were to take the loose, broad definition of stranger to be anybody we don't know personally, then all of your pictures will be of strangers to me, and all of mine will be of strangers to you. This, even though I probably find nothing strange at all in your pictures.

    My definition or at least my understanding or feeling of what constitutes 'stranger' is someone who is alien, someone whom I do not understand, someone whom I can't relate to, someone whom I am probably afraid of.

    Being from a different country, a different age group, a different ethnicity, a different time: none of these either alone or all together generates a 'stranger' for me. For example:

    Yokoro by Malick Sidibé

    ... shows two beings who are different from me in all of the above ways, yet I feel complete understanding with them. I was very like them as a youngster: I am still like them in my mind.

    In the picture, below, the people might be strangers, but I'm not sure. I think the photographer was stranger to neither, and I don't see the people as strangers:

    GI with villagers in Vietnam by Philip Jones Griffiths

    That people are not known to each other and keep to themselves does not make them strangers, to my mind. In this next picture:

    Train station Berlin-Schöneweide, by Gerd Danigel

    ... everybody is keeping a very distinct distance from their neighbor, but I think that's because they know very well who these people are, as do I. I think they've arranged themselves very comfortably just where they are because they are not strangers in the true sense of the word.

    In all photographs of people not known to me and also (probably) not known to the photographer, I find that I can and do (think that I) understand them, that I relate to them. This is true even of people that are angry, that are despicable, that are doing horrible or disgraceful things. Not only are they not 'strangers,' they are all too familiar. I know them too well.

    Why does this always seem to be the case in good photographs? Why can't I find a photograph of 'stranger'?

    I think it's because, when making pictures, we photographers wait for connection, we wait for understanding, we wait for a moment of relating-to before we shoot. A good picture will be full of strange-ness, full of the unexpected, but it will be strange and unexpected because it's there with(in) some kind of connection. And that electric connection (often fired by strange-ness) is what we look for in post. I'm not finding pictures of 'stranger' because they're almost by definition what photographers don't take pictures of, what photographers don't understand, what photographers don't relate to: they're what gets screened out.


    In all societies, the stranger is the person whose love lies elsewhere. Even if they cannot be precisely defined, the stranger's centers of interest are not those of the majority. the artist typifies the artist's alienation from modern society. — The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols

    Maybe the 'stranger' is behind the camera. LOL

    If you have any pictures that you think show 'stranger,' or if you can link to any, please post them. Thanks.

  2. ...

    A case of a photographer shooting strangers ... and finding fellow persons, not strange at all is Irving Penn in his ethnographic projects.

    I would often find myself daydreaming of being mysteriously deposited (with my ideal north-light studio) among the disappearing aborigines in remote parts of the earth. These remarkable strangers would come to me and place themselves in front of my camera [and] I would make records of their physical presence. — Irving Penn, 1974

    [ ... ]

    He came, he said, from "very small circumstances" and always remained to some extent an outsider. He took advantage of his unbelonging to make contact with those he did not know, who were even more remote than he to Vogue [magazine] but with whom he could briefly yet intensely engage. Like an explorer from another planet. Penn arrived in the lives of those tribal peoples via the diplomatic-economic-technological capsule of Vogue, but it was not Condé Nast who greeted them. It was a gentle and magnetic fellow man who saw them, posed them, and, for a lingering, all-consuming moment, touched them.​

    example of this work by Penn

    [ ... ]

    Penn did not say much, but the clues are in the pictures and in bits of written evidence, such as this account of photographing five Okapa warriors in New Guinea. Penn recalled:

    These were gentle little men. In their culture, when you touch someone they touch you back. So when I would place them in position, they would take it as an embrace and hug me back. It's a picture made up of a lot of double embraces. To imagine I had been concerned about bringing my wife after reading about cannibalism there.​

    [ ... ]

    [In his book on the portraits of people in Cuzco, Peru] he wrote in the book's introduction:

    The studio became, for each of us [the sitter and the picture maker], a sort of neutral area. It was not their home, as I had brought his alien enclosure into their lives; it was not my home, as I had obviously come from elsewhere, from far away. But in this limbo there was for us both the possibility of contact that was a revelation to me and often, I could tell, a moving experience for the subjects themselves, who without words — by only their stance and their concentration — were able to say much that spanned the gulf between our different worlds.​

    [ ... ]

    To redeem what was shallow, separate, and temporary in the world, he made an art profound and permanent, one rooted "in a broad base of human understanding and need," his own first of all.​

    example of Penn's work from Peru 1
    example of Penn's work from Peru 2

    Do you see 'stranger's in any of the linked pictures? I don't think Penn saw them as 'stranger.' Quite the opposite.

    [all quotes are from Irving Penn: Centennial (2017) ]

  3. ..........

    'Empty chairs' is a really good idea. I hadn't thought of it, but it works.

    The 'creature' that sometimes strikes me as a stranger is a bird. They can be very disturbing (as well as attractive, obviously).

    Danny Treacy has a project called 'Them' that seems like it ought to work, but it doesn't, at least for me. Most of them seem interesting but a little silly.

    "For Them Danny Treacy creates elaborate sculptural costumes from found clothes, he proceeds to wear the costumes and then photographs himself."

    The only one that seems effective is this one. That one does make me want to watch it a little warily. (I do note that he doesn't claim to be doing 'stranger' but he's trying for something like that.)

  4. Phil, while you said this in relation to strangers (which I agree with), I can identify with this in relation to familiar people as well. Sometimes, we are too distracted by other's presence. Absence or obscurity allows us to think of others in a different and deeper way than if they were in front of us. I was saying this also in a comment in the thread 'sensibility'.

    I like your picture very much. The visual tension works very well to show the contradiction between being visible vs invisible. Two identities facing blackness in front (the destiny?) in their own space, away from each other, yet connected, while their dark shadows signify (to me) their existence (footing) in the present. I am trying to imagine, how the mood of the photo will change, if the harsh shadows are replaced by diffuse ones. Would it reduce the sense of A moment in time that it gives to me, and feel more like drifting in time.
    Phil S likes this.

  5. Have you seen Gus Van Sant's movie Elephant? The ones who were 'strangers' didn't look particularly strange. It's a great movie but it was, for me, terrible to watch because — knowing what's coming — it's so normal ... until it's not.
  6. People aren't necessarily inherently strange or strangers. Some get to be strangers due to estrangement/alienation.

    I may be responsible for your being a stranger.


    This is a very early pic of mine. It haunts me a little because I took it when I was in a phase of sneaking around the streets stealing pics of people . . . and not feeling good about it. Though his expression, his body language, his red hair might be read by some as strange, I'm the one who caused the alienation in the photo by my distance, my use of the sterility of the environment with its prime color geometry, the tree as barrier, the shadow on his face almost seeming to create a mask (today, I'd probably emphasize that more than I did back then) and my unwillingness or inability at the time to get or feel close.

    I think, often, when I'm seeing someone else as a stranger, it's because I'm the stranger.
    Allen Herbert likes this.
  7. ...............

    The following won't seem immediately related to 'stranger' but I think that if you let it simmer for a while, it does have to do with the perception of strangeness:

    "We forget that a chair, for example, isn’t just a chair. In addition to being one it looks like one. The “likeness” of an object to itself, its immediate doubleness, gives every perception a hint of déjà vu. That’s the uncanniness. The “likeness” of things is a qualitative fringe, or aura to use a totally unpopular word, that betokens a moreness to life. It stands in the perception for perception’s passing. It is the feeling in this chair of past and future chairs 'like' it. It is the feeling in this chair that life goes on. It presents, in the object, the object’s relation to the flow not of action but of life itself, its dynamic unfolding, the fact that it is always passing through its own potential. It’s how life feels when you see it can seat you."

    "... In art, we see life dynamics 'with and through' actual form. Or rather, we always see relationally and processually in this way, but art makes us see that we see this way. It is the technique of making vitality affect felt. Of making an explicit experience of what otherwise slips behind the flow of action and is only implicitly felt." — Brian Massumi


    One Train May Hide Another
    by Kenneth Koch

    [ ... ]

    One sentence hides another and is another as well. And in the laboratory
    One invention may hide another invention,
    One evening may hide another, one shadow, a nest of shadows.
    One dark red, or one blue, or one purple — this is a painting
    By someone after Matisse. One waits at the tracks until they pass,
    These hidden doubles or, sometimes, likenesses.

    [ ... ]

    … One sidewalk
    May hide another, as when you’re asleep there, and
    One song hide another song; a pounding upstairs
    Hide the beating of drums. One friend may hide another, you sit at the
    foot of a tree
    With one and when you get up to leave there is another
    Whom you’d have preferred to talk to all along. One teacher,
    One doctor, one ecstasy, one illness, one woman, one man
    May hide another. Pause to let the first one pass.
    You think, Now it is safe to cross and you are hit by the next one. It
    can be important
    To have waited at least a moment to see what was already there.​

  8. Some samples of strangers (©2000 me)

    Loneliness is not
    An old man on a park bench

    But an empty park bench
    In the rain.

    Loneliness is not
    The empty gaze
    Of a stranger, but
    A lover who looks at you
    With the eyes of a stranger.

    Loneliness is not

    The dim street lamp
    On the darkest corner
    Until she stands under it
    In the yellow circle
    Of despair.

    Loneliness is
    A hired Santa Claus

    Ringing his bell
    In front of the store
    Pretending not to see
    Faces in chaotic crowds
    Of people pretending
    Not to see his.
    Phil S likes this.
  9. ............

    I think empathy is what prevents us from making pictures of 'stranger.' It's why I don't see 'stranger' in any of Brad's work.

    As I said in the OP:

    Here is Luc Sante describing the work of the great photojournalist James Nachtwey:

    "A difficult aspect of Nachtwey's task as he shoots is to avoid two opposing pitfalls. He cannot pretend to embody his subjects' viewpoint, a categorical impossibility, but he also cannot stand apart from it. He must therefore function as a kind of translator: this is what you would see if you were here, his pictures say, and this also approximates what the people in the pictures might be seeing. It can only ever be an approximation, since he cannot account for the ways in which association changes sight — that a nearby corpse is very possibly a relative, for instance, or a ruin formerly the site of a remembered happy event, are matters that a foreign photographer cannot conceivably simulate."

    [ ... ]

    "It is another strange convergence of moral stance and aesthetics that his continuously renewable sense of horror strongly resembles the sense of wonder. Photography requires a certain kind of innocence in its practitioners, not to be confused with naïveté, and a moral mission demands something very similar — both, after all, are works of witness for which a view occluded by habit or fatigue would be ill-suited."​


    A different tack to 'stranger' might be that of something like Ralph Gibson's The Somnambulist. Think, for example of the cover picture with the two hands awkwardly curling over the bow of the boat that contains a black sphere. For me, his book doesn't make me see 'stranger' as a being separate from me, a being that I don't understand and/or can't relate to. Rather, it taps backwaters and odd corners of my own psyche, my own imaginative open-doorways or mindways. It gets lots of strangeness but, for me, does not get the presence of 'stranger.'

    I think that Gibson's work is different from Phil's picture of chairs, which does almost work for me. In Phil's picture the long gap between the two chairs and the black at the top of the frame do bring to mind an unknown/disconnected presence.

  10. OMG.

    Once again, theory that confounds.

    Empathy doesn't prevent someone from shooting 'stranger.'

    This is for the same reason a sad person can effectively photograph happy stuff.

    Photographers/artists may be, but don't have to be, LIMITED by their emotional states. They can be LIBERATED by them as well. They can also be LIBERATED by their imaginations and powers to create what's not there.

    In some cases, strangeness is just empathy with the right edge.
  11. Roger Ballen's stuff always strike me as fun; sort of a wonderland, fantasy world that little kids will contrive out of whatever is at hand. I think he may *want* to be strange, but to me it's just kind of like a magician show, where you choose to enjoy the romp.

    Meatyard. Why didn't I think of his maskings? Good one. I'll have to think about it some more, but that does kind of work, especially the Lucybelle Crater project.

    I don't think his "spooky" ones (without the mask) do it, though. They are more about ... hmmm ... what are they about? ... . Maybe the same kind of thing I was trying to describe in Gibson's pictures. Something to do with my own mind's going in and out of here-and-now-ness (auto-correct kept making that here-and-newness LOL).

    The thing that's tricky is having a 'stranger' be strange in the photo. Almost always, a person who was strange has been "recognized" as fellow at the moment of picture-making. See Brad's work. That's what makes it "the" moment to take a/the picture.
  12. I love the idea. But (and you males may laugh at this), after admiring the concept and the look of the picture, I thought, "what a terrible haircut she has" ...

    ... but then I couldn't think of what would have been a good hairdo for the concept. Maybe I'm just tired. I've had a long day. Thanks for the link, Phil. It's nice to see something fresh. Doesn't happen very often.
  13. Thanks, Phil. I appreciate your comment.

    I believe it starts with a few minutes of conversation. I'm kind of a snoop and curious about people, and what's happening in their lives. I think many have a lot on their mind and are willing to open up to genuine/sincere questions. It helps being a good listener. People can sense when you care and try to understand what they're relating.
    Last edited: Aug 3, 2017
  14. Norman 202

    Norman 202 i am the light

    Brad, after photographing your subjects do you still consider them strangers (assuming they were strangers to begin with)?
  15. Many I see again on the street. A few I'd consider as casual friends, most I would call acquaintances, I suppose. I don't think I'd consider them strangers. But I really haven't given this much thought.
  16. .........
    Thanks Brad.

    For me, it's not even that a lack of empathy would get you 'stranger.' A 'stranger' is where empathy is tried and is refused or found to be impossible. For me, driver's license photos or police mug shots don't show strangers: they show people doing things or being in situations with which I can empathize (though I have not yet been arrested and mug-shotted). ID photos made with no empathy are not necessarily 'stranger' pictures. For me, 'stranger' is a being that I can't recognize, that I can't understand or connect with.

    This includes what Phil has pointed out already, more than once: the realization of how much we don't and can't know other beings with whom we normally do empathize. Noticing this in others or in ourselves. Some of the most 'stranger' pictures I've looked at are photographers' self-portraits. I think 'stranger' ness is sometimes what motivates an artist, especially photographers, to do self-portraits. When looking at themselves, rather than search for connection, they feel out the disconnects between what they see and what they feel/know, and wonder about it.


    A example of pictures of others (not self-portraits) that's not meant to be strange, but that I think is, is the portrait work of Gary Schneider. His pictures have been described as being extremely intimate, but for me, they go right through 'intimate' to become 'stranger' -ish. They're so close and for so long (eight minute exposures) that the faces begin to dissolve and lose (intended) coherence. See what you think in the two examples below (you can also use the next and prev links to see the whole series):

    Gary Schneider 1
    Gary Schneider 2
  17. I don't know what purpose it serves to turn strangeness into an esoteric, theoretical, and infinitely inaccessible concept.

    I know what strangeness is and, to me, it's fairly common in photos and in all art. It's not some quality that's almost impossible to convey, intentionally or non-intentionally.

    I think the very baseline should be common sense and common language. A picture of someone I don't know, whether it's on a driver's license or hung in a gallery, is a picture of a stranger. Now, we use language in such a way as not to call every picture of a stranger strange.

    Just as there's no "secret" to what art is, there's no "secret" to what strangeness is in a photo. There's no complicated mental formula that's going to get you there, such as empathy being refused. Just allow yourself to feel it. It can't be cooked up with complicated mental constructs.

    Try to remember the last time you felt strange or something felt strange to you. Picture it. Be a photographer.
  18. I'm thinking about your questions, but that word seems to be a hook for me. It's not so much not seeing people, as in reading, as seeing what is not identifiable that makes someone or something a stranger. It's what I do see and know that I don't know.
  19. I'm still thinking ...

    "The millennium has come and gone and we still fear dragons." — Ursula K. Le Guin

    'Stranger' gets made by the imagination; knowledge fails.
  20. ..........
    Here is Kafka writing about stranger. Note his are not nice. This need not be the case; in science fiction, in magical realism and even in Western films where the hero rides in from nowhere at the beginning and then leaves without explanation at the end, all may show 'stranger' in a wonderful light. Superheroes are often 'stranger.' Anyway, here is Kafka:

    "I don't know exactly where these soldiers come from, in any case from a long way off, they all look very much alike, they wouldn't even need a uniform. They are small, not strong but agile people, the most striking thing about them is the prominence of their teeth which almost overcrowd their mouths, and a certain restless twitching of their small narrow eyes. This makes them the terror of the children, but also their delight, for again and again the children long to be in horror. Even grownups probably never quite lose this childish terror, at least it continues to have an effect. There are, of course other factors contributing to it. The soldiers speak a dialect utterly incomprehensible to us, and they can hardly get used to ours — all of which produces a certain shut-off, unapproachable quality corresponding as it happens, to their character, for they are silent, serious and rigid.

    [line break added] They don't actually do anything evil, and yet they are almost unbearable in an evil sense. A soldier, for example, enters a shop, buys some trifling object, and stays there leaning against the counter; he listens to the conversations, probably does not understand them, and yet gives the impression of understanding; he himself does not say a word, just stares blankly at the speaker, then back at the listeners, all the while keeping his hand on the hilt of the long knife in his belt. This is revolting, one loses the desire to talk, the customers start leaving the shop, and only when it is quite empty does the soldier leave." — The Refusal

    "Before the Law stands a doorkeeper. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment ..." — Before the Law

    At the other extreme, not remote, but very close, we find Roland Barthes writing this:

    "Sometimes the idea occurs to me: I catch myself scrutinizing the loved body (like the narrator watching [Proust's] Albertine asleep). To scrutinize means to search: I am searching the other's body, as if I wanted to see what was inside it, as if the mechanical cause of my desire were in the adverse body (I am like those children who take a clock apart in order to find out what time is). This operation is conducted in a cold and astonished fashion; I am calm, attentive, as if I were confronted by a strange insect of which I am suddenly no longer afraid. Certain parts of the body are particularly appropriate to this observation: eyelashes, nails, roots of the hair, the incomplete objects. It is obvious that I am then in the process of fetishizing a corpse. As is proved that if the body I am scrutinizing happens to emerge from its inertia, if it begins doing something, my desire changes; if for instance I see the other thinking, my desire ceases to be perverse, it again becomes imaginary, I return to an Image, to a Whole: once again, I love.

    "(I was looking at everything in the other's face, the other's body, coldly: lashes, toenails, thin eyebrows, thin lips, the luster of the eyes, a mole, a way of holding a cigarette; I was fascinated — fascination being, after all, only the extreme of detachment — by a kind of colored ceramicized, vitrified figurine in which I could read, without understanding anything about it, the cause of my desire.)

    [ ... ]

    "It is not true that the more you love, the better you understand; all that the action of love obtains from me is merely this wisdom: that the other is not to be known; his opacity is not the screen around a secret, but, instead, a kind of evidence in which the game of reality and appearance is done away with. I am then seized with that exaltation of loving someone unknown, someone who will remain so forever: a mystic impulse: I know what I do not know." — The Lover's Discourse

    [Please notice: "if for instance I see the other thinking, my desire ceases to be perverse, it again becomes imaginary"; notice that the imaginary understanding of "seeing" what the other is thinking, is heavily reliant on symbolism.]


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