I've done a little more exploring at Black & WTF. Most (not all) of the photos seem to fall within one or more of a limited number of definable categories:
- Hijinks (people fooling around or making faces, etc.)
- Visual jokes
- Odd, funny, or unintended juxtapositions
- Unexpected situations
- Things that are too small or too large
- Making light of death
- Weird hair
- Sexual innuendo
- An odd apparatus, machine, or mechanical contrivance
- Strange, funny, ironic or unusual signs or labels
- Gender confusion or ambivalence
- Photographic tricks, collages, or pastiches
- Costumes or masks
After looking at a lot of them at one sitting, overall the pictures have a surfacey or superficial character that is initially appealing but becomes tiresome and repetitive eventually. Although they give me more to think about than the ubiquitous scenics that bore me out of my mind, I find them less appealing generally even than the somewhat similar "funny home video" genre, because the video versions generally contain a bit more context and narrative: you understand why the video was being made, and then you experience the unexpected event that transpired instead, which sometimes has a spontaneous character that would be difficult to stage and possibly also difficult to invent. (Although I suppose most of them are just people falling.)
Of course, with so many pictures on the site, there are good and bad pictures in most of the above categories. For instance, this picture goes in the "signs or labels" category...
...But it has a little more to it than most of the others. When Barthes called a photograph "a message without a code," what he meant, I think, was that pictures often tell part of a story very specifically without telling other parts at all; that is, they need context and a certain amount of interpretation for their meaning to become complete. The sign picture above is incongruous, and qualifies as unusual, like most of the others. But it also strongly suggests its context—it was probably a home or a business in a building or location that used to be a brothel but isn't any longer, and the people who live or work there were so frequently bothered by visitors looking for the brothel that a permanent sign dissuading them from persisting was felt to be warranted.
As such, the picture has all sorts of connotations and associations. It suggests the passage of time and the reassignation of real estate for different purposes, the emotions both of the people inside who don't want to be bothered and the state of the possible visitors, and, of course, at a little greater remove, all the associations of lonely people looking for anonymous sex and the people who provide it. It might bring up for the viewer similar situations in their own experience: for instance, I once bought a house where a known drug dealer had previously resided, and the police came by trying to serve warrants half a dozen times before I was finally able to convince them to stop. I could have used a sign explaining the situation on the door, I suppose.
What's most curious to me is that very few of the pictures at Black & WTF have the qualities that I look for in a good snapshot: either that sense of accidental visual grace or compositional felicity that great snapshots can have, or that unexpected whimsical or ambiguous element that adds an implied depth or mystery that in some sense transcends context.
Of course some of them do have something of those qualities. This one, for example, is a nice composition, and has a bit of unintended tension: the man was probably holding on to the tree to help him keep his footing, but it looks partly like he's pushing against it to help it fight the wind. Was it an intentional joke? Or just something the photographer noticed, before or after the exposure? There's that tension, too. But it's an authentic gesture: his aspect is inherent in his person and his situation, not just in the intentionality of the collaborators who made the photograph; you know the wind is real. It has a little less of the jokey quality of the general run of these pictures, and a little more of the quality of the snapshot that works.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Harry Lime: "Believe it or not I'm actually pretty certain that I know where that 'This is not a Brothel' sign is located, because I used to walk past it almost every day when I was working in London. The sign is in Soho on Mead Street and I'm pretty sure that I also took a picture of it at some point.... Soho used to be a red light district, but now it's been gentrified and is home to a large portion of the movie post production business.
"Here is a google maps link. Screen left. Sidewalk. There are three people walking towards camera, one of them is holding a brownish envelope (?). Behind them is a young girl in jeans, who looks like she is on the phone. She has just past the door, which is screen left from her, where the white faced building forms a corner with the gray-green brick faced building. I'm pretty certain that this is the correct location. It's been two years, but I seem to remember that the building is currently occupied by a law firm, which depending on your opinion of that profession may not infer much legitimacy to the accuracy of the sign...."
Mike replies: Now, now, no lawyer jokes. So, do we have any current Londoners who might be able to confirm?
UPDATE from timd: "Checked No. 7 Meard Street this lunchtime: the sign has gone."