Who is This, Anyway?
What goes on in your imagination when you look at an anonymous photograph? Neither you nor I know who is in this picture, but because it’s an image of a woman placed in an interesting background we may begin to conjure up a story about her.
What does this photograph say to us? Although we obviously have no connection to her, the story behind why and where it was taken may pique our curiosity. We may flip the picture over, hoping for a note or name on the back. We know she existed. She was at this place, but why and with whom? This is one of photography’s great gifts—the image on a photograph is or was a representation of reality. (I’m talking about un-manipulated photography in this instance.)
Other forms of artistic representation, paintings, for example, are a reconstruction of the real. A painting results from an interpretive process that deals with the interaction of mind, hand, paint and canvas that is beyond the casual act of recording a person or place. When we look at a painting we also look at technique, at surface.
But a photograph’s only requirement is for us to point a camera and push a button. What is left to the viewer is to recognize what is in the picture. The narrative of a photograph overwhelms technique and surface. Photos invite us to make up our own story. We think of them fundamentally as a documentary, recording device/activity. The photograph encourages us to surmise.
This is true even if we have taken the image ourselves. A photograph is a representation of an occurrence; it is by its nature an artifact of the past. We may or may not remember the circumstances of a particular image: who was outside the frame of this picture; when precisely the button was pressed; we may not know some of the people in the photograph; what was going on at the time; why that person had a specific expression.
Our false memories of that moment may fill in some of the answers, making us unsure if what we remember is right. Time is erosive. All that we may know is that we took the photo, or did we give the camera to someone else to take a few pictures at the party, hmmm…?
Yet we can still construct a satisfying story that suits our vague memory of the why, how and when, can’t we? We have the evidence, this photo. We know we were there. We know we took some of the photos. Though which ones (a pertinent question, especially if we had been drinking) did we take? The story we think we remember becomes our representation of the “facts,” which is a representation of the image in the photograph, which itself is a representation of a moment in time—which are all cut loose from the moorings of reality. But, we have this photo. What does it mean? What story can we concoct? Is it true? In the end, does it matter?
Tell me what you think
Scan and place anonymous photos of people, events. Concoct a story about the image.