My climb up the mountain has been so interesting. Every now and then I take stock at the thirty thousand foot level and am astonished at all that has been happening. And it isn't all about the galleries, shows and publications I've been invited to present in. I have been steadily educating myself about the territory I have walked into in so many ways.
Initially, that education was about knowing when I had made a good picture and how to develop a recognizable aesthetic. This took a number of years. I look back at where I started and it startles me how far I have come in a relatively short time.
But there is so much to know about this territory, as there is for the territory of any endeavor undertaken with seriousness.
Part of my self-education has been to make myself aware of what else is out there in the world of images, both now and in the past. I have spent hundreds, by now, possibly even a thousand or two hours combing through online presentations of photographs, going to galleries and studying photo books. I review feeds almost every day, looking for images I like, getting a grasp on what is happening out there, and learning to read and critique photographs.
Since the beginning of my decision to climb I have been attending a local Salon, which has been invaluable to the development of my own work and, as importantly, bringing me to a place where I can participate in the friendly critique of work other than my own, which is incredibly hard because you have to leave your own shtick at the door. It's especially hard when you don't connect to the work in front of you, yet feel a responsibility to the photographer presenting, who is hoping for useful feedback. I wouldn't say I am good at that yet, but I am learning. And I am in the process of becoming one of the leaders of the Salon.
In view of all this, I thought it might be time to start writing about photographs that I am inspired by. This is my first offering of a reading of another's photograph. My hope is that it will evolve into a series of readings. I am going to focus on readings of photographs that I find exceptional for one reason or another. I have no interest in being a critic. I simply want to understand why a photograph might be compelling to me and uplift work I find exemplary.
I found this image in my photography feed the other day. It blew me away. I look at hundreds of photographs in a week and not because they flow in front of me as I am scrolling through social media or whatever. No, I seek them out. I seek them out from sources that I think have a good curatorial eye. I have sixty plus photography feeds in my feed reader. I look through what arrives on a daily basis. I Look for inspiration. I Look hoping for something, like the image above, that takes my breath away. It doesn't happen very often. Maybe once or twice a month? When it does, I feel blessed.
I knew nothing about Dave Heath before I encountered this post by Art Blart, which is the hard work of Marcus Bunyan who posts extensive and intelligent reviews of museum exhibitions, mostly photography but also art.
So, what is it about this photograph that blows me away? Where to begin. I will start by saying that if I photographed people, which I don't very much, it is, stylistically, a photograph I would have made. I love isolating subject material against a dark background. This is my aesthetic. So already I am attracted. I want to look.
That is the first instant. In the next I am focused on the facial expression and body posture of the little boy, doubled up on the concrete. Did the little girl running off to the side sock him in the stomach? Kick him in the balls? Something violent and primal has just happened between the two of them. The title of the photograph confirms a sibling rivalry interpretation of the photograph.
I imagine the next instant in the scene. The girl is running out of the frame and by the next snap, if there was one, she will be gone. She looks as unhappy as he is. Did he do something to her that caused her to leave him doubled on the pavement like this? So many questions arise. It is clear that a primal scream moment has befallen both of them.
In the next moment I am the little boy in the picture, except the stage would be a bathroom with a tub I had just been pushed into by an unexpectedly defiant and determined younger sister.
And now, I am experiencing the primal screams of all the brothers and sisters that have gone before me and will come after me.
And like that, the photograph has gone from the local to the universal.
At this point, I start thinking about it as an archetypal image and begin to place it in context with the world I am experiencing right here and right now.
Every photograph is to be interpreted in view of the culture that produced it and the culture which is viewing it. I am thinking at this moment of the controversial defiant girl statue standing in opposition to the wall street bull.
It's a long way from the Leave it to Beaver world in which Vengeful Sister was made and the world in which the girl and bull came into existence. But isn't there an underlying archetype going on here? A contest between the masculine and feminine? I wonder if Vengeful Sister was considered a little politically incorrect at the time it was made? At that time challenges of male dominance were muted at best. I doubt the photograph was made to express a point of view on the relative position of the sexes, but I read it in a social context that gave rise to the defiant girl and bull image. I am not happy about the message of the defiant girl and bull. It's a little bit Daniele and Goliath, except I am not convinced the outcome will be a good one for the little girl. And why a little girl and not a grown woman in the form of a matador with red cape and sword? We may like our little girls defiant, but we prefer them to be manageable or even overwhelmable. I prefer Vengeful Sister where the balance of power is far less clear.
And finally, I think about the structural beauty of Vengeful Sister. I have mentioned the white on black or dark gray background aspect, which so thoroughly supports the archetypal nature of the image content. Then there are those beautiful diagonal lines of the concrete walk and step structure serving as a stage for the unfolding action and symbolizes, at least to me, unforgiving and unrelenting primordial nature. These soft fleshy things have little choice but to act out their drama in a physical and psychological world that is all harsh reality. Cry all you want, the nature of that reality is as it ever was.