Lost(?) in translation

A black and white image of an adult woman tending to her tomatoes in a raised bed on a summer day. Her face is not visible, being hidden by a huge straw hat.
Unknown photographer. Gelatin silver print. Collection of Réka Szentirmay. (front)

When I look for vintage snapshots for my collection, I usually look for something funny. Not necessarily obviously hilarious, but there better be some detail that makes me smile. This photograph is an excellent example. There is so much going on here that it has become one of my favourites. I love the mundane photo-bombing by the indiscrete garden tap on the right and the shy peekaboo of the modest armchair on the left. Being a bit of a hylozoist, I can easily pair complex personalities to both of them. And then once the little sculpture is spotted, oh how easily a dirty mind switches on!

Freud quite likely would diagnose me as a misfit. I often notice sexual connotations, even where they might be less obvious. (The tap, for example—and that, of course, is completely intolerable once the observer of such nuances happens to share a body with female genitals.) He would quite probably recommend to institutionalise me—and I can only hope that I could afford my treatment in a picturesque establishment. Something apt for a lady, preferably with a gorgeous garden.

Then again, I’m rather surprised that many people don’t see and/or feel the sexual charge in things where for me it’s so obviously present.

This picture is a stretch alright: requires advanced level kinkiness, I would say. (I can practically hear my mother quietly disapproving.) I see a young harpist trying to blend in with the tomatoes, hoping that the next balls touched might be his. But God Almighty turns him into stone as punishment, despite doing such an excellent job. Especially in black and white: the best possible environment for a likely-bronze sculpture to impersonate the deep green and passionate red of tomato plants.

Isn’t it interesting how for a long time black and white was the only officially acknowledged language of photography? I find it intriguing how the medium of ultimate truth had to be monochrome, otherwise ridiculed and considered amateurish. As if the most distant point from our colour-filled reality was the one and only way to get the gist of something. To be considered seriously professional and share the truest of truths, one was to use a man-made machine—a machine filled with black and white film ignoring the colours that make the world what it is. This simplified, filtered truth was the only way to the heart of believers.

To be honest, I myself have a weak spot for this language. It helps me to see the world in another light. It reinterprets what I know—or I think I know. The translation of colours into Adams’ and Archer’s Zone System and its ten simple Roman numerals. They, combined in a flat rectangle, can tell you a story in an elegant, simplified way. Is what we see the truth? A truth? The only truth?

Do we truly care in the end?

Just give me an image and my imagination will fill it in with my favourite colours. The limitations of a monochrome world make my mind roam even more freely.

There is another side to every story. And it’s just one click away!

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Noisy details

Unknown photographer. Gelatin silver print. Collection of Réka Szentirmay. (detail)

A photograph can contain a lot more than what meets the eye at first glance. We all have encountered an occasion where we wanted to take a picture of something or someone but had to wait for other people to move out of the frame. The experiences that come to mind most easily for me are touristic hotspots on holiday, where you don’t want any or too many strangers in your precious visual memories. Some ambitious people use software like Photoshop to get rid of this “noise” in their photos. Apart from unwanted bystanders, this “noise” can also include unfortunately framed objects such as lampposts, electrical cords or litter.

However, this noise could also provide for a very interesting research topic. What if, instead of analysing the main subject of a photograph, we focus on the edges? What if we specifically look at everything that was included in the photo accidentally? Furthermore, can we as viewers properly differentiate between purposefully placed and accidental elements?

Let’s take this photograph of a woman gardening as a case study for these questions. The fact that I describe it as such, means that I immediately assume the subject of this photograph is the woman working in this garden. For me, this photograph was taken to eternalize this occurrence.[1] What the real reason was, we cannot know. Was the photograph taken by her spouse? Did they just move to a new home and did he want to capture the moment his wife finally got to enjoy her very own garden? She is dressed for the part. Or is this the garden of the woman’s mother, who isn’t able to maintain it anymore? There could also be a very sad story underneath the surface.

Now let us focus less on the subject of the photograph and more on the elements that are located around the edges, the elements that almost blend into the background: the noise. To the right of the gardening lady, between the hedges that look like grapevines (although I am uncertain), stands a figurine of a boy (?) with a harp. I do not know whether this small statue is supposed to be a personification of music, or nothing more than a figure with a harp. The placement between the vines is initially surprising, I almost overlooked it the first time I saw this picture. However, the shoulder of the figure reflects some extra light, which makes the object stand out from the leaves when you take a closer look. Once noticed, the figurine adds meaning to the scene. For me, the presence of the statue in the garden next to the woman adds some softness and endearment to it. The innocent statue and the pose of the gardening woman both convey care and love for the garden; someone is taking great care of this small piece of land.

Unknown photographer. Gelatin silver print. Collection of Réka Szentirmay. (detail)

Literally at the edge of the picture, in the bottom right corner, we see an out-of-focus faucet. A typical object for a garden, to have water at hand for rinsing pots and watering the plants. Its location in the picture gives me the idea that the photographer would rather have left it out of the frame, but couldn’t. Following the concrete border from the faucet to the left of the gardening woman, we see a slight curve on the very edge of the photograph. This gives me the impression that it is indeed a small garden, offering the photographer very little room to back up or move around to eliminate the faucet from the frame. The same goes for the chair on the left side of the photograph, of which only a third is in the picture.

These “noise” elements in the photograph may very well be accidental or unavoidable, but since they are in it, they become part of the narrative behind or meaning of the photograph. They function as visual clues, for the viewer to follow on the quest to discern the photograph’s meaning. Therefore, the visual “noise” is as much a part of the dialogue between image and viewer as the purposefully placed elements are.


[1] As I have already pointed out before in another blog, the idea of a photograph being forever or the image on it being eternalized, I wholeheartedly admit there is a lot to be argued against it. However, that is a different discussion from the point I am trying to make here.

Check out the other post written about this very picture!

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Unfortunate trimmings

A portrait of a young woman, sitting on a wooden ornamented chair with a high backrest that reaches just above the woman's head. The woman has short dark hair and wears a dark knee-length dress, a thin scarf around her neck, and open shoes with a small strap. She sits in front of a studio background with painted shrubbery. The edges of the picture are harshly cut. To her right, half of another young woman is visible. She too has short hair and wears a mid-tone dress.
Unknown photographer. Gelatin silver print. Collection of Cobie Hijma. (front)

Every photograph has its own life story. Especially a printed copy, which inhabits the world from the moment in the darkroom when it comes out of the rinse bath and is hung to dry. From that moment on, it is a physical object that starts its journey, created with a certain purpose but not strictly limited to it. It starts its own life.

A photo print is created: it exists, it can be taken, it can be given, it travels, it accompanies, it illustrates, it contradicts, it is damaged, it damages, it warms hearts, it fades, it shows, it withholds and so on and so on.

In the case of this specific photograph, the print seems to have been through a lot during its life. You could almost say it has been molested and is in need of some serious therapy. It has been rudely trimmed, without consideration for all of its contents. A female figure on the left has been harshly cut in half. The girl sitting on a chair in the middle of the photograph (or at least, what is now the middle) has been deemed the protagonist of the image and its story but has not gotten away unharmed either. Her feet have also fallen victim to the ruthless scissors.

Seeing how someone really went to town on this print, I cannot help but imagine what else might have been going on around the piece of the image that is left. At least the girl on the left is still partially an actor in this photograph’s story. Who knows what else might have been, outside of this rudimentary cut frame?

For every photograph, there is a whole world outside of the edges of the picture. Sometimes, as in this case, you can see some details around the edges that give you a glimpse of what might be out there, beyond the frame. The photographer makes choices when choosing the composition, what to include and what to eliminate from the frame, sometimes by careful consideration and sometimes instinctively in a snapshot moment. The photographer can be both positively surprised and heavily pissed off by an unwanted detail that sneaks itself into the frame; a Starbucks coffee cup in the background that was overlooked (this happened in an episode of Game of Thrones), a lock of hair that won’t stay in place, a newspaper on the table with a headline that immediately puts the image in a historical perspective…

The printed photograph itself can become a similar indicator of its story. It has been printed for a certain reason, but that does not mean that that is the only meaning of its existence. A photograph can survive generations, moving between owners and lives, stories, contexts, and discourses during its life span.

Some photographs say more than a thousand words by what is shown within the frame. But every frame also excludes the world around that frame. In this case, the frame of the print excluded thousands of stories, but the story of the print itself was even minimized by cutting it. So, if this photograph said more than a thousand words when it was still intact, it might hardly say a few hundred or so now.

There is another side to every story. And it’s just one click away!

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