Saturday, March 26, 2022

Something to Look At

Here's a photo:

Who took it? It looks kinda like a particular guy. Kinda.

This showed up on twitter, Dr. John Edwin Mason, professor of history, was doing a little performance of hand wringing about how he tries to resist Eggleston, but cannot always do so. Eggleston is officially Out Of Favor because he's rich, white, and Southern (and, possibly, an unrepentant racist, I simply don't care enough about what random ancient white southerners think to look it up.)

What do we see here?

This is an extremely formal picture. The extreme near/far trope is deployed, quite accurately, here. The figure of the woman is almost exactly the size of the tail light, and almost perfectly aligned with it. Most of the car is colored by way of reflection. We can see the sky, and the pink ground (carpet? see the tire marks?) in the chrome of the tail-light and the rear bumper. The car itself appears to be a cream or white, but it's hard to tell because the pink material underneath so dominates. The model is wearing a black fur coat, and some sort of outré gloves in white, and a light toned shoe also peeks out under the floor length coat.

The styling of the tail light and the model's beehive date the photograph to the 1960s. A Cadillac buff would be able to tell you the year of the car instantly, but it's certainly neither 50s not 70s, generally.

The tire marks in the ground material are interesting. I'd expect the styling team to smooth those out, but they do rather fill in that corner of the frame, and I think they work. They help make sense of the car.

There is a little triangle of sky upper right, doing the same work as the tire marks, as well as inserting a blue to complete the pink/blue complementary color palette, and which sky is also reflected in the tail light for a certain pleasing symmetry. The sheer formal structure visible in this thing is really fun.

This is recognizably a fashion-styled photograph. The model and the structured formality of the frame can mean nothing else.

Indeed, this is from the pages of Vogue, 1965, shot by Gene Laurents.

What makes this whole story amusing is that when Dr. Mason encountered it and had his little crisis, the photo was in fact attributed to Eggleston, and he assumed that was correct.

Dr. Mason is a charter member of the modern school of photo theory, and therefore seems to believe that things like the photographer's gender and skin color can be determined by examining the photo via the dialectic of "gaze."

And yet, here we have him unable to even notice that this definitely isn't an Eggleston. The photo looks like an Eggleston for two reasons: it's colorful, and it uses the extreme near/far trope that Eggleston used in his most famous photo, but seems to have never used again. Eggleston is not near/far guy, he is gritty urban color guy. This photo is neither gritty not urban. This photo looks absolutely nothing like an Eggleston.

On the one hand, I am inclined to give Dr. Mason a mulligan here, because it's twitter, and there was the attribution. Even on twitter we tend to believe attributions.

On the other hand, Dr. Mason discovered that it's not an Eggleston after all, but a Gene Laurents (who for all we know is also an unreconstructed racist), and declared then that he now loved the picture. This is in part jokey performance, but based on Dr. Mason's past remarks, I ascribe a lot of literal truth to these current remarks.

Dr. Mason is absolutely unrepentant about the fact that he judges pictures not on anything visible in them, but based on who he thinks shot it. It is in fact clear that he didn't really look at the picture closely or seriously, he saw the wash of color and the shine, and wanted to love it, but couldn't because Eggleston, and now it's ok to love it because some rando took it instead. This is not exactly critical engagement. This is a crude social performance to signal that he, Dr. Mason, still considers Eggleston to be Out Of Favor.

This gives us, I think, an interesting view into this world of photo theory.


  1. Judging a photo based on who took it is going to get iffy once the AI-based robot photographers enter the game. Of course, they may not bother with taking photos, they'll just create the pixels from scratch.

    1. I wonder if that's why the Academy is so concerned with AI photography? "Oh no, how will we know if the photo is any good? Best just to preemptively declare them all bad!"

  2. Hard to believe anyone would mistake that for a Eggleston. Also, that's her raised knee inside her dress doubled by reflection in the car, not some funky glove (if we're looking at the same thing).


    1. Good catch! I felt it was too low for an arm, but it's also too high for a knee - which just means she's wearing heels, duh.

      It's still a really weird posture, who steps into a car without using their hands to steady themselves?! It adds to the picture, probably, the whole damn thing is weird.

      Nobody who *looked* would mistake this for an Eggleston, but I see that Colberg bought it as well and slipped in his own sneer at Eggleston, and then was echoed by yet a third photographer, also anxious to sneer at Eggleston.

      The whole episode is really quite hilarious. All these pointy-headed dorks so anxious to signal that they hate Eggleston that they don't even bother to look at the picture!

  3. Nice catch on the raised knee Mike C.! I also thought at first glance that it was a white glove but upon further inspection it's obvious that the model would have to have really long arms for that to be the case.

    The blue triangle at the top is a nice touch in that it allows the viewer to identify the background sand to be a dune and it pairs well with the black area in the bottom left of the image.

    The photographer's intent on symmetry is obvious in that he went to the extra length of whiting out the car's back window so that it wouldn't take away from the abstraction of the car's taillight.

    1. It is interesting how literally nothing about the trunk-line is visible, except the wing-window on the door. I'm not sure if we're actually low enough to completely miss the windshield, or if there are Shenanigans.

      Certainly a very spare upper-structure look was integral to this era of Cadillac. With the top down, and the windows rolled down, there wouldn't be *much* up above the plane of hood/trunk.

  4. That white bit might be the trunk lid.

    1. I definitely see a trunk lid, yes. The rectangle of cream color left of the top half of the tail light is, I think, the actual paint color of the car.

  5. It's finally dawned on JC that nobody in their right mind gives a flying fuck about "photobooks." Progress!