Monday, April 29, 2019

Public Photos/Private Photos

I am reading essays by John Berger. I wouldn't say he was always right, but he was always interesting!

In today's installment, he distinguishes between public and private, or personal, photos. By the latter he means things like family snapshots. Photographs which come burdened with a fairly complete context. The photograph of grandma refers to grandma, and grandma is woven into the story of our lives by an infinitude of infinitesimal strands. The photograph has a complex, complete, and fairly fixed meaning for us in the family.

The other sort of photo is precisely the photo which lacks these connections, this interweaving. An advertising photo, a news photo, anything. That photo, let us prise it apart from any surrounding material it currently lies within, does not come encumbered. We do not know these people, that place, those objects. That photo is nothing more than an instant torn out of time and place, and printed out flat.

As such, that photo, the public photo, becomes something of a potential explosive. It can be made in to anything. It can be married to any story you like. It can be re-contextualized falsely, or truly, or anywhere in between, insofar as those categories are even meaningful. The material from which we, maybe, a moment ago pried this photo loose did provide context, did weave that photo in to something, maybe. But, what was that something? It could have been anything. Nearly any photograph can be bent to nearly any end.

Consider this picture:

There's a good chance that you'll recognize it as a pearl. Real or fake? Saltwater or fresh? I don't know if there are ways to distinguish in this photo, and there's a reasonable chance that you don't either. You can't even tell how big it is.

I could use this for an advert. I could illustrate a fake news article about oyster abuse in pearl farming operations. You could use it however you like (and, indeed, this photo appears in REACT so if you want an actual legal license to do pretty much anything you want with it, you can acquire one fairly simply.)

Berger suggests that photographs like this should be given a context, they should be embedded in more stuff in order that they might acquire meaning. He makes the obvious, in hindsight anways, claim that you should make that context multidimensional. To give this pearl meaning, I should tell you, somehow, how it is woven into the fabric of my life. I could tell you this with more pictures, with words, with drawings, with interpretive dance. It doesn't matter.

I could tell you, perhaps, that it is my wife's earring, that these earrings were (as I recall, anyways) purchased to match a pearl pendant she owns, one of several pendants she has to hang on the single gold chain she owns. I could tell you about how my children, two daughters, are fascinated (as children are) with my wife's jewelry, and how we have come to expect a gradual erosion of that collection under the clumsy ministration of small, beloved, hands.

I could research, and then tell you, a true story about pearl farming. I don't know anything about it, but I could find out, and then tell you.

I could tell you about the basement where I made this photograph, the light, the funnel I made out of a scrap of metal I used to repair a duct after I cut it open to retrieve a toy, lost down the duct by small, beloved, hands. That story, I already told you, though.

This article on Petapixel, written by Missy MWAC (who is a perhaps mid-functioning moron) seems relevant. What she, and the commenters, are not grasping is the way that personal photos become gradually shorn of their context, and thus of their meaning, and thus at last of their value.

Everyone wants the photos of themselves, and maybe of their siblings, parents. Aunts and uncles? Less so, Great grandparents? Not at all. The reason is that as these people, these events, the objects, recede in time they disentangle themselves from the fabric of our lives. The loom weaves on. The infinitude of infinitesimal threads binding great-grandfather to the fabric are way, way, over there. There are many many yards of cloth from there to where we begin to recognize anything. The reason we save photos from fires is because those are contemporary photographs. The reason we do not want recently-deceased Grandmother's photo albums is because they are not.

We know nothing of these people, after a time, they have no connection to us. They become, effectively, shorn of context and become isolated fragments of time, isolated instants from a time far distant, meaning nothing. Flip it over and there are maybe names and dates, but so what? We know, maybe, intellectually, where the pretty young woman fits into the big chart Great Aunt Lucy made of the family tree, but so what? The tree ends at our parents, and we never met, not do we know anyone who ever met, anyone more than a couple of inches away from their names.

More precisely, the value of family photos lies exactly in how strong our personal connections are. If our family is large but close-knit, with strong bonds and a rich story-telling tradition, we will love photographs from a more distant past. If your family is more like mine, a small nuclear family and a cloud of strangers, well, less so. No matter what, though, eventually all these things will recede far enough into the distance to mean nothing.

These photos then become like my pearl. They will become something else. Most likely, they will become refuse. Possibly they will fall victim to some MFA student's found photography book, and will be shoved in next to some pictures of Nazis or turnips in a desperate attempt to mean something. Perhaps they'll get sold to a greeting card company, which will sell copies of them adorned with captions, humorous up here, poignant down there to the left.

Obviously, I agree with Berger, at least in broad strokes.

Photographs, any photographs, should be placed together with other materials to give them meaning.

Post-modernists discovered that fragments shorn from their context meant nothing, and conversely that cleaved to their context they had only a constructed meaning, and then, inexplicably, concluded that meaning itself was a sham.

This is wrong.

Meaning is a construct. Fragments, properly assembled, become more than the sum of their parts, they become a fabric and well-made fabric has meaning. A thread will not cover my nakedness, and 10,000 loose threads will do a marginally better, but still very bad, job. Weave them into fabric, cut and sew that fabric into a shirt, and it will adequately conceal my pale, gelatinous, form from the horrified eyes of the public.

More often than not what we make with our pictures resembles a tangle mess of threads that perform no function, but every now and then, maybe we can make a shirt, and cover up our bellies.


  1. Berger is well worth reading, though his style can be infectious (to get the full effect, you need to have heard his peculiarly patrician voice and cadences), and the point he is ultimately trying to make is often elusive (a case of the relative value of journey v. destination).

    Seeing "Ways of Seeing" on TV in 1972 was, for me and many others, life-changing, but his book collaborations with Swiss photographer Jean Mohr are extraordinary, and worth seeking out (e.g. "A Fortunate Man", "A Seventh Man", "Another Way of Telling"). I like reading him on the value and nature of drawing (e.g. "Bento's Sketchbook").

    N.B. your "funnel" is known in the photo-world as a "snoot". Knew you'd want to know that.


    1. I cannot read him without often hearing snatches of his weird lisping voice. It's fairly funny. I would say that something like 30 percent of the time I have no idea what he was trying to say, and harbor a suspicion that he was likewise unsure.

      I put things IN the funnel, I don't push light THROUGH it!