“..if a stranger sought out in a good season the people and places described here they would probably seem clearly similar to their pictures, and the stranger would asume that the pictures mirrored real life. It would be marvellous if this were the case, if the place itself, and not merely the pictures, where the work of art”
This last module of the course begins with this reflection that John Szarkowski did for the William Eggleston’s exhibition held at the New York MOMA museum on 1976. The relation between the subject, the place, the time and the viewer is modified by the camera. The camera creates a new reality, a fictional reality that the viewer would interpret according to his own background, an interpretation that would be different from the real subject, the real place and the real time.
We can see this transforming ability in the well-known picture of Eggleston: suddenly, the tricycle left on the middle of the street become the active subject around which we can invent whatever story our imagination was able to conceive. Where is everybody? Why is this toy in the middle of the road? Did a tragedy happen and suddenly everybody disappear? Who lives in the house over there? Does the owner of the tricycle live there?
The emptiness of the scene is complete with our imagination, that try to fill the gaps on the story and so the story that the photographer put in front of us makes any sense. Our visual perception looks for explanations, trying to find the what, the why, the when, the what….
Most of the information available is within the limits of the frame, where the author try to include the elements or clues that he considers essential so the viewer can decipher the intention of the story. There is no escape for the viewer; there is no place outside the limits of the frame where he can collect additional information to reconstruct the visual flow that reality has to compose the meaning of a scene. The picture has isolated a fragment of reality from space and time.
Eggleston builds a portrait of Memphis including very few people in his photographs. Lifeless landscapes, abandoned spaces, but where we can see signs of a rare life: signs of agriculture, lonely roads, rusty adverts of fizzy drinks, signs that suggest a time that suggest a past time. Eggleston’s pictures don’t try to document directly the human activity. He doesn’t take pictures of celebrations or events that involve a direct presence of human beings. He talks about such presence through the absence, that has and incredible evocative power: churches, roads, barns, road bar, neighbourhoods, etc. The narrative potential of these scenes is huge: having remove the people, the focus is put on the place that conveys the meaning and the context where almost any story can be written.
I think that a photographer like Eggleston is more a storyteller than a history writer, but not in the sense of a writer storyteller: In photography the story is rarely told literary, instead the photographer prepared and organized the elements of his story on the picture, giving to each one the relevance and position in the composition that can help the viewer to “recompose” a suitable story. Depending of such disposition, the use of some other supportive elements and techniques, and the intention of the photographer, photography can be more or less literal. I think for example on Paul Strand picture of the White Fence, which I analysed for assignment Three on Context and Narrative. It can be read literally, regarding exclusively the denotative level of the image, the part, or taking into account a richer connotative layer of meaning where even the background of the viewer can be add information for the interpretation.
A photographer is always a storyteller: in the act of photographing there is always an intentional election of a point of view that directly influences the way on which the picture will be read. Even in documentary photography, the photographer makes an election, so among all the possible stories he chooses the one he wants to tell.
I think photography has a narrative value similar to the music, which without being literal is able to suggest a countless number of significances and feelings in the audience, through tonalities, rhythm, melodies, etc.. The light, the colour, focal distance, point of view has also an emotional influences in the way on which the viewer feels the picture.