Where the Economist cover is concerned, my "reading" of Obama's stance—his body gesture—is that he's listening to someone talk. Now, that could be right or it could be wrong. But the presence or absence of the person next to him pertains to that interpretation. As it happens, it reinforces it; and the absence of the "possible talker" deprives me of that interpretation, or makes it less likely, and makes me look for another one. It's quite possible that the woman next to him was not speaking and he was not listening—one commenter said that maybe he's just noticed his shoe is untied, and the picture doesn't positively refute that. But that's their reading. I can't get all the facts from a picture, but I feel I deserve to have all the facts that were actually in the picture. Because it helps with my reading.
At any rate, I thought it was curious, in light of this aspect of the Obama cover discussion, that Ken Tanaka, whose print sale has just concluded, offered, in the comments, an extensive "reading" of the Patricia Dalzell picture above that I reported recently adding to my collection. This isn't usual, either for Ken or, in fact, for anyone on TOP, including me.
...And then, a few days later, I got an extensive reply from Pat, responding to Ken's reading of her picture. I should mention before we go on that I personally don't quite agree with all of Ken's reading in its entirety, and I have had disagreements with all sorts of people in the past about readings of all sorts of photographs. A reading of a picture is just one's personal interpretation of the likely reality; it involves intuition, experience, some detective work or responses to clues, interpretation, and maybe some educated guessing or informed speculation. Maybe even a little imagination. One thing I'm convinced of that is that some people are much better at this—at reading photographs, I mean—than others. I can tell you for sure (he said wryly) that some subset of the public insists on seeing photographs with relentless, overpowering superficiality. I even know of one critic-who-shall-not-be-named who pretty consistently "reads" photographs in ways I personally feel are always wrong! I just always find myself disagreeing. But there's no absolutely right answer with any reading: photographs are evidence, not proof.
I'll repost Ken's reading of Pat's photograph here, followed by Pat's reply:
Ken Tanaka comments: [Pat Dalzell's 'Benita'] has some overtones of the peace/love/beads/bells/communal living era. But if you look more closely a bit longer you realize that it has absolutely nothing in common with that impression. In fact it quickly descends into a rather dark mystery.
Here are the subtle elements of this image that distinguish it from the casual snapshot portrait that a three-second glance might suggest it to be.
First, that's no hippie-type thrown-together fence. It appears to be a skillfully crafted and nicely-maintained fence. It looks like there's laundry hanging to dry in the area behind the woman, suggesting a rural setting. The plantings in the lower left corner suggest that the photograph was taken in a well-tended garden/yard.
Now there's the woman. This is where all the little peripheral details culminate, as they should, to either anchor the persona of the subject or, as is the case here, to create mysterious ambiguity. She's wearing a casual working-in-the-yard-drying-laundry dress. But her shoes look too fussy for such ground work.
Next, look at her posture. Most of her weight is on her right leg, with the left receded into the shadow. This is a common, and very old device, to establish to create slight visual tension. Now look at her left hand. She's gripping that fence very tensely with one hand as if she's straining to restrain herself from some action. Her other hand is in her dress pocket. What's in there? A vibrating cell phone? A knife? A gun?
And then there's her expression that really puts the cherry on the sundae. That cocked eyebrow on an angrily confident expression is chilling. I don't want to get any closer to this woman.
No, this is no happy snap. This appears to be a carefully crafted portrait of a woman prepared to convert potential energy to kinetic energy. Perhaps she's listening to the response from her just-asked question, 'Where you been all night?' Perhaps she's confronting a pesky salesman and is seconds away from 'Shoo!' But we're left wondering what's about to happen.
The best portraits, photographic or painted, are very carefully built to use our knowledge/assumptions of human nature and/or the sitter to suggest something just outside what we thought we knew. Little haunting mysteries that tattoo our minds.
These days (the past 15+ years) women seem to have been far more skillful at such portraits than men. Men tend to shoot blunt-force-trauma sports and celebrity portraits with no more skill or depth than a beer ad. Women, by contrast, seem to generally have a far better sense of subtle ambiguity and humor. They often shoot for someone who's willing to really look at the image.
Patricia Dalzell replies: I thought the comments made by Ken Tanaka about Benita are so interesting. He is right about so many things. August Sander has been my hero since I first saw him in The Family of Man when I was 18. Of course, then I didn’t know who he was, just as I didn’t know any of the other photographers. That book was my photo education; when I went to college, women could be teachers, secretaries, or nurses, so I made my photographs in my head, and I didn’t get a camera for another 15 or 16 years. But I knew then that I wanted to make pictures that made people feel the way I felt when I looked at that book.
Benita and I met in graduate school at the University of Maryland where we studied with John Gossage. It was there I met Anne Truitt, who instructed me to look at Renaissance portraiture and sculpture at the National Gallery of Art. Art history was the turning point; it was then I began to really understand not only composition, but also how a work of art was made.
I was lucky; I lived only 20 minutes from the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and one summer I went there almost every day. A professor at Maryland suggested I look at the 1903 edition of Henry Rankin Poore’s Pictorial Composition and the Critical Judgment of Pictures. In that book I learned for the first time about the Golden Mean; at the Gallery I found the Dover Publications reprint of Composition in Art. On the ground glass of my camera I made a grid of the Golden Mean.
Sculpture began to interest me because I could really look at a piece from all sides, something that is awkward to do with a subject just standing there. My favorite piece to this day is the larger-than-life size terracotta bust of Lorenzo de’ Medici at the National Gallery. I could look at him from all sides, wonder about his broken nose, feel his strength, think about his drapery, and consider how I would do his portrait. My daughter began to tease me and asked, "Mom, are you in love with him?" When we went to Italy, I looked at the Florence statue of David in the same way. I liked the contrapposto stance and later began to ask my sitters to assume that gesture. It puts a person at ease.
An important photograph for me was Alfred Stieglitz’s portrait of Paul Strand as a young man. Before, I had only seen pictures of him in later life. This young image not only showed how he looked when he was in his prime, but his clothing in the 1919 portrait was not so much different than today’s; it could be that a viewer wouldn’t know when it was made. I could see how a viewer might be influenced by old or new clothing, look at a portrait and dismiss it and the subject as, "Oh, that was then." I looked more closely at pictures of my parents from the thirties, and began to see them as young talented people with rich potential, rather than as family saw them as the grandparents they were. I wanted to make portraits of people that were timeless; to be a witness to the uniqueness of a person and at the same time form a connection with each of us in turn.
These are all the ideas I take with me when I do a portrait. I always like to go to the sitters' own environment because what is around them tells something about who they are. Benita asked what she should wear, and I told her timeless, not trendy, nothing with writing on it.
It is so much easier to just talk, rather than get down to the scary business of actually getting the camera gear out. That means going to work, and not every photograph turns out. First, I made some pictures of Benita and her five-year-old daughter; those first shots are never the best. And then I moved to the fence. Benita said her daughter had hung the wash up and she couldn’t take it down because it was so cute. I love the fence because it creates that important diagonal line. I like a person’s eye to have something to do in a photograph and that line lets one enter the photo, if the gate were closed we'd be blocked out.
She said no one could take a good picture of her because her face is asymmetrical and her eyebrows are not in line. I told her to lean against the fence, get comfortable and take that contrapposto pose. There is always the problem of what to do with hands, but I take so long with this process that most people just give up and wait. That's when the real portrait comes. She put her right hand in her pocket, but I didn’t notice the tension on the left hand until I made the contact sheets.
I don’t like smiling pictures because the smile becomes a mask. This whole process takes at least two hours and by then no one is smiling; the relief comes when it is over. It's interesting about her shoes: they have always been a little jarring to me, but I didn’t know why. If I were doing this today, I would probably have her go barefoot, and since then, I have asked people to take off their shoes if it is appropriate.
I love the whole darkroom process from developing the film on. In my first darkroom when I took the cap off the stopbath I got chills down my back, it was so exciting. Agfa has stopped making my paper; Polaroid is out of business so I can’t do emulsion/image transfers.
Benita is a strong person, she went to Cuba when it was illegal, smuggled film out of Africa, and was imprisoned in Moscow for taking pictures. Her students love her. Since this portrait was taken she has completely changed her look; short magenta red hair, and vintage clothing. I'm going to do her portrait again this summer. Hope it works.
Ken sure got it right. —Pat Dalzell
(Posted by) Mike
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Sean: "The moment I saw the fence in the portrait I thought of Paul Strand, so I was interested to see that the portrait of Strand is an important one for Pat. I noted that nothing in the portrait suggested the era in which it was taken; that approach is one of the reasons why I love the work of Mark Steinmetz. Again I think of strand when I see this shot of Steinmetz's:
Featured Comment by Ursula: "Patricia Dalzell is my cousin, and I have had the good fortune to be her subject on at least two occasions. The portrait she did of my daughter Lisa in the lawn chair is imprinted on my mind. My favorite thing, next to watching her at work, is to hear the story of a shoot where I was not present. Thanks, Pat, for letting us in on the way you work."