Friday, November 27, 2020

Something to Look At

Here's a photo from a series "Ghosts of Segregation" by Robert [sic] (actually, Richard) Frishman.

You could note that it's your Nighthawks reference of the day, that it's definitely an example of a somewhat overworked pseudo-vernacular style, and so on, and all that would be true. But I'm interested in one thing and one thing only, today. See the window on the right? What might one make of it?

Consider the personal reading which is, in my definition, the meaning one person makes of a photograph upon looking at it a bit. It is essentially an opinion, based on whatever that person brings to the picture, what they see in the picture, and what they see surrounding the picture. I am going to consider 3 possible personal readings.

The first reading more or less glosses over the window. "It's just a window, to let light in and sight out." This reading, it happens, is contradicted by the contents of the frame, specifically the fairly obvious service counter sticking out from the bottom of the window, and the light above the window. Still, if you don't notice those or decide they're not important or interpret that part of the photo differently you might stick to "it's just a window."

Another reading is that it's a drive-through window. It looks exactly like one, after all. There is nothing I see in the frame to contradict that reading, although you could probably argue that the height is wrong, or that it's awkwardly positioned for traffic flow or whatever. All that might suggest is that it's a badly designed drive-though window.

The third reading leans on the title of the series and identifies the window as a now-re-tasked "Coloreds" service window. Again, there is nothing in the frame which contradicts this. Arguably, it fits slightly better than the drive-through theory, but then we have the fact that "Coloreds" service windows have been re-tasked in some cases as drive-through windows.

None of these readings is, necessarily, the ground truth of the matter. We have no idea, looking at the picture or indeed the title of the series, whether or not that window was ever a racially segregated service window. This shot makes it clear, surely on purpose, that this is no longer a segregated service window. For all we know, it was put in in 2003 as part of a drive-through conversion. Or perhaps it was an ordinary window, which got a counter added last year to serve as an overflow service window. There are endless possible explanations that would produce this precise architectural, and visual, configuration.

What is the ground truth?

Research indicates that it was in fact quite likely a "Colored" service window. Edd's opened in 1953 as a Dairy Queen, bang in the heart of the Jim Crow south. The only reason it would lack a "Coloreds" window would be that it didn't serve non-whites at all. A little further research turns up a DQ in Ontario that features the same building design, and which did in fact have such a window. Examining the street maps and Street View around Edd's suggests that, if it ever served as a drive-through, the pavement around the building has changed radically since. Other windows on the building look nothing like this one.

Thus, what I term a forensic reading, a researched effort to discover the ground truth, supports the third personal reading indicated above. This does not mean that we should dismiss the alternate reads. None of them are, on their terms, wrong.

What a 19 year old white boy from Connecticut brings to the picture is different from what a 70 year old black man from Mississippi brings. One will likely see a drive-through window, the other a "Coloreds" window.

In the end, it is the personal readings that matter. The effect of a photograph on people, the meaning we make of the photo, is ultimately the source of the larger social meaning of a picture. The ground truth of the picture is not the social meaning of the picture, and in considering the picture as a picture there is no particular reason to privilege ground truth.

This is why people who are seriously interested in photographs ought to subscribe to what I have termed the critical reading, which takes up the entire sheaf of possible personal readings and, as far as is reasonable, marries them to a forensic reading to make up a more complete understanding of the possible breadth of meanings a photograph might have.

Neither obsessing over the ground truth of a photograph, nor insisting that personal reads different from ones own are "just wrong" is useful here.

The social meaning of a photograph derives from what it appears to be to people, not from what it actually depicts, nor from what you happen to think of it no matter how expert you are.


  1. I grew up in the heart of Dixie in the 1950s, and I remember all that stuff. Yep, segregation was deffo a thing. I could tell you stories (but I won't). And in many, many ways, it's still a thing throughout the so-called developed world, usually persisting in defacto forms. So, I dunno, "Ghosts of Segregation" ? Cool book, cool photos, great find.

  2. Not THAT Ross CameronDecember 1, 2020 at 4:42 PM

    Thanks for those thoughts. So it’s one thing to say “this is what the image/photo/picture means” (or maybe more correctly “this is what I think the photographer meant”), vs “this is what it means to me”.
    2nd point perfectly valid regardless of whether one comes at interpretation with a background in images, or (like me) completely ignorant of the visual arts and it’s history, or as an academic in the visual arts (and all the baggage that goes with that).
    I guess you’re beef is with those who make the former type of statement. I.e. saying that “based on my background/expertise in interpreting visual arts - the only valid interpretation is X”. The ‘baggage’ is in not only the history of methods / schools / movements of expression, but also the academic discourse (& the direction it takes) which guides / constrains the thinking and interpretation.
    Or I could just be completely missing the point :~)

    1. I think you have it exactly, or very very close.

      The cognoscenti are dimly aware that "ground truth" and "my opinion" are actually different, but they're vague about it, and slide fluidly between them without much noticing. Their opinion may not be ground truth, but it's definitely correct in any point where it differs from yours.

      They're not exactly intellectual giants.

    2. Not THAT Ross CameronDecember 3, 2020 at 3:18 AM

      I guess the Publish or Perish policy of academic institutions doesn’t help either. I’m assuming it has a useful role in STEM, but for the arts, does it tend to encourage tortured comparisons of fine points of minutiae - anything to try and find a unique angle or a point of difference, to justify one’s continued employment?

  3. The last para, "The social meaning of a photograph derives from [...]" reminds me of all those po-faced 'banality of evil' photo projects 'documenting' decaying relics of concentration camps, overgrown railways, battered nazi-era statuary, rubble &ct. Talk about baggage.

  4. I don't know where you got wind of this project, but it got published a couple of days ago in the NYTs travel section, in a big, attractive spread

    Retro-disaster tourism?

    1. I got it from John Edwin Mason's twitter, where he was busily sneering at anyone who thought it might be a drive-through window, or that it looked like one, or whatever.

    2. "*Always* think about the person who made the picture. (Visual Literacy 101.)" --J.E.M.

      Gotta love how a crack-brained whim gets transformed ipso facto into an edict, with zero nuance or room for debate.

      Surely the hallmark of a terrible teacher, but I'm provisionally gonna go with 'mindless tweet by a deranged egomaniac'.

      Better: 'Consider intermediaries (photographer, printer, picture editor), when analyzing how their POV, collectively and individually, have influenced what is being conveyed by an image.'

    3. "visual literacy" has become a catch phrase for this crowd that just means "I'm an expert, so you should listen to whatever random words fall out of my food hole and accept them as gospel"

    4. Also, they're obsessed with authorship because in their fantasy they are in charge of who gets to take pictures.

      There's a nasty little authoritarian inside every one of these dudes.