Miller often woke up early to get the fire going in the old logging camp's ancient stone fire pit, and Pat awoke under the trees to the crisp fall cold and the smell of bacon sizzling in the skillet.
• • •
Henry, slumped in his tattered armchair, smelled of Old Spice cologne, stale cigar smoke, and the slouching ruin of youthful dreams.
• • •
Her beauty was perfect but too unspoiled, too childlike, and he couldn't bring himself to feel toward her anything resembling lust. Even her breath smelled sweet.
• • •
Stephen King has a passage in his book about writing in which he briefly describes a rabbit sitting on a red-and-white checked tablecloth. Then he claims, simply, that what he just did, and what all writers do, is conjuring. He put a picture in your head of something that doesn't exist.
I can't remember what other comments he makes about this. (It's annoying having all my books put away—I'd go find and reread that passage otherwise, and could talk about it a bit more intelligently.) But part of what he's depending on in conjuring that rabbit-on-the-table image in your head is that you—the reader—know what a rabbit looks like and have seen a red-and-white checked tablecloth. He's conjuring, all right, but he's also depending on shared experience.
All of those three short passages at the top of this post also conjure in the common literary way. But all three depend for their richness on your own personal experience—especially, you'll notice, in the realm of smell. Obviously you can't put down smell on a page. Any of those passages might seem vivid to you, but probably only if you've smelled a.) bacon cooking, especially outdoors; b.) the way old smokers smell; or c.) a young person's "good breath." All the words are doing is reminding you of something you might already know.
A tear to your eye
I think many photographs function in the same way. The connection might be tenuous and what it connects to might be fugitive, even subconscious. And it might be quite specific to one person; that is, a particular picture of a crumbling wall might remind you of your visit to your mother's childhood home in another country, which might remind you of your now-deceased mother, and in that way a photograph of a detail of a wall is capable of bringing a tear to your eye. And if other people look at you, mystified, when you show them that picture, you say something like "there's just something about it."
Of course, possibly other connotations are not like that; possibly they're dull and obvious. Or, possibly they're so universal that they're just trite and clichéd.
It's important to remind ourselves, from time to time, that the connotations aren't in the picture, in the same way that the smell of cooking bacon is not there in the words.
Sure enough. I find myself reading old literature from time to time, and it's obvious to me that quite often the writers are depending on shared experience to fill in the details, unmindful that I'd be reading their words two centuries since they wrote and that I don't know what some of their references refer to. See if you can read Turgenev or Washington Irving and not sometimes come across examples. (It will certainly happen a lot in the near future, when people read about characters putting a record on, or needing a wristwatch to tell the time, or waiting for a magazine to arrive in the mail so they can get the latest news, or saving up for a calculator, or Congress working together harmoniously for the good of the country.)
I'm sure some people who read this will be searching anxiously here for a directive, but I don't have one. I just think that thinking about connotations, personal or universal, might expand how we understand looking at pictures, or perhaps how we expect other people to look at ours. "How do I feel about this," "What makes me feel that way," and "Are other people likely to feel the same way" are questions worth asking—even if we never quite uncover the answers.
'Open Mike' is when Grandpa wanders off every weekend. We go find him and bring him back home for the work week.
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
David Miller: "I recall the incomparable Isaac Asimov describing a speaker discussing one of his (Asimov's) stories, unaware that the author was in the audience. After the presentation Asimov approached the speaker and thanked him for the presentation, but pointed out that the speaker had, in fact, misinterpreted the story. The immediate response was, 'My dear Mr. Asimov, what makes you think that, merely because you wrote the story, you know what it is about?'"
Richard Tugwell: "David Miller's featured anecdote about Asimov is even more relevant for photography—maybe that was his point—because often with candid or street photography we have no idea what it's about. The viewer is entitled to interpret it in any way they want and may get closer to 'the truth' than the photographer."
Kenneth Tanaka: "'All the words are doing is reminding you of something you might already know.' That's essentially what most scenic landscape photographs are about, too. Without recalling a viewer's fuller sensory experience of, say, a mountain environment, a picture of mountains is, at best, decorative and dull."
dogman: "Growing up, the Holy Trinity of American writers was Faulkner, Steinbeck and Hemingway. I read a lot of them all and loved each of them at the time. As I have aged, I have come to love the works of Hemingway more than the other two, especially his short stories. Why? He wrote in vignettes, without resolution in most cases, and he required the reader to think and fill in the spaces between his words. I guess Hemingway was making the reader do the conjuring. In any event, it works for me. So do the lyrics of songwriter/singer Dave Alvin. Like Hemingway, his stories require the listener to resolve the unsaid. A good example of this is the song 'Plastic Rose.'
"I would like my photos to have that effect. I don't want to be the teacher who explains the subject. I would like to be the storyteller who makes the viewer conjure his own story and meaning for the image. A noble goal, surely impossible to achieve.
"I don't know if it is true or not but I've read Hemingway once made a bet that he could write a short story composed of less than 10 words. He won the bet. I may not have the correct wording but I think it went, 'For sale: New pair of baby shoes. Never worn.'"
Steve Caddy: "Regarding dogman's 9-word Hemingway example: Wow. If you've had the experience of losing a child at birth, you'll appreciate acutely just how powerful that particular piece of conjuring is. A tear to the eye indeed."
Jock Elliott adds: "Hemingway wrote like a camera. Take it from an old English major. He would describe a scene, the actions of the characters, their dialog, but he never, that I recall, described their thoughts or internal state. He left that for the reader to infer from his external snapshot of the scene."
John Camp: "There are a number of common techniques used in fiction, and being specific about the settings is one of the most effective—but perhaps decreasingly so. For example, people spoke on wired telephones (and from phone booths) from the late 1800s until ten years ago. All of a sudden, cell phones arrived, and that changes the way fiction works—you really have to jump through your butt to come up with reasons people can't talk to each other. In my first novel, in a sort of ticking clock situation, two cops rush to a phone booth...and neither has a quarter. Now, there wouldn't even be a phone booth. In 1989, in the first novel that I completed that was actually published (I had a couple flat tires before that), a wrote about a computer expert going into his study: 'Most of my time is spent in the studio or the study, which is dominated by three walls of books and a bunch of personal computers. There's an IBM-AT that's been collecting dust lately, one of the IBM PS/2s, a Mac II, and my personal favorite, a full-bore Amiga 2000. A Lee Data dumb terminal is stuffed under a book table next to an early vintage Mac. A few old-timers from Commodore, Radio Shack and Apple sit in boxes in a corner with power cores wrapped around their disk drives....' You don't have to go back to Washington Irving to make references that will mystify people; 1989 will do it quite nicely."