Friday, 29 June 2018

Panda Photographs Young Boy! - Bert Hardy and the Line Between Cute and Unsettling.

Sometime ago I was giving a lecture to students about, among other things, dream-like photographs. Not misty-eyed views of appealing scenes, but images that somehow invert the normal in ways that we sometimes experience in our dreams. I mean of course those dreams that, for their oddity, really strike us but often seem completely boring to the poor souls we recount them to. So I once had a dream in which I left a meeting to go outside and smoke a cigarette - in real life I am not a smoker - and did so not because I was aware that smoking indoors was forbidden, but because I didn't want to be seen smoking by the others in the meeting. When I was outside I found it hard to light the cigarette because I was suddenly holding my cat and she was struggling to be released but I didn't want to let her go. (Yes, I know, as I mentioned, the dreams of others are boring).

Freudians out there may see all kinds of things in this dream, but all I see and will consent to see, is something mildly absurd that at most might be thought to reveal a degree of background anxiety. But the point of me mentioning this is that I can image a slightly absurd dream of a man attempting to light a cigarette while holding a cat that was clearing struggling to break free.  That is what I would mean by a dream-like photograph. There are lots of real images of this sort, but I will only use one of them as my example. Its a quiet well-known image by Bert Hardy, the British press photographer and photojournalist. I have seen it given different titles, but the most common one is Panda Photographing a Boy, 1939:

The panda in the picture is Ming, who arrived at London Zoo from China in 1938, and the boy is Michael Hardy, the photographer's young son. A couple of years ago he wrote an account for The Guardian newspaper of how the picture came to be that describes how his father, as a freelancer, had to find striking subject matter to sell to the newspapers. Hardy knew that photographs of animals and children were always popular, and the new panda was quite a sensation with the public, and so here was an opportunity. Because Ming had already been widely photographed - Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were photographed with her - Hardy had the great idea of reversing the ordinary to have the panda photograph a person, as if that animal's interest in humans was as acute as our interest in them.

The photograph really works. It captures our attention for its absurdity, and for its charm. Key to its success, however, is that at the moment this image is being made Ming appears to be looking at the young boy with the attentive gaze of a photographer trying to get the right image, while its paws appear to be manipulating the camera. Likewise, the boy - Michael Hardy - appears willingly to be looking at the camera and panda with the kind of self-consciousness that most people have when they reposting for a photographer. All of this works together to make an effective dream-like image, something that shows the inversion of the normal in a striking manner that has the power to stick with us. We may also be inclined to say of the picture - as a friend to whom I recently showed it did - that it is so cute.

I'm not going to get distracted too much by the notion of cuteness, assuming instead that everyone will already be aware of the panda as a paradigm of animal cuteness - so much so, that its cuteness is very likely to be the very feature that ensures its biological survival. Pandas have all the cuteness features: child-like in appearance and behaviour, soft, round face, big eyes, playful cartoon ears and tonal contrasts. So the Hardy image is of a cute animal, behaving cutely by imitating human behaviour, in front of a cute child. It is all so cute.

But another photograph in the series that wasn't used, and which almost certainly wouldn't have sold to the newspapers, is anything but cute. In fact it is distinctly unsettling:

In this version of the image young Michael Hardy appears distressed, while Ming is looking elsewhere, possibly at the Camera or beyond it to the side. We also notice that now Ming is wearing a collar, with a chain or some kind of leash attached and held tautly by someone outside the frame. While Ming may still be cute, we become more aware of her oppressive surroundings in this image. The bleak concrete and brick enclosure is oppressive, with almost no flora: if you look carefully at the most distant bit of brick wall you can just make out a bare, leafless tree beside an ugly looking bin on wheels.

While it may still have some dream-like features, the tenor of this image is poor child, poor poor animal. The first version is picture-postcard charmingly quirky; this latter one is a darker reflection on how we treat children and animals. It reminds me somewhat of Gary Winogrand's zoo images in which the people are the ignoble beasts in contrast to the noble animals reduced by their circumstances. But this one has the added feature of showing how we are willing to use both children and animals for our amusement.

I don't begrudge Hardy the image - it was a different time and he was trying to feed himself and his family. My point is that to wake from the dream of the former image would be strange but amusing, while the latter one would be to feel unsettled by the contents of the dream.

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

When the material photographic medium asserts itself - Kertesz's Broken Plate

It has sometimes been argued that the photographic medium is 'transparent', though different writers mean different things by this claim. Famously - or infamously - Kendall Walton argued that photographs are transparent in the sense that we literally see, or are in a kind of direct perceptual contact with, the real objects they depict. In his essay Transparent Pictures Walton writes that:

"With the assistance of the camera . . . we can also see into the past. We see long deceased ancestors when we look at dusty snapshots of them . . . Photographs are transparent. We see the world through them . . . I must warn again watering down this suggestion, against taking it to be a colourful, exaggerated, or not quite literal way of making a relatively mundane point. I am not saying that the person looking at the dusty photographs has the impression of seeing his ancestors . . . Nor is my point that what we see - photographs - are duplicates, or doubles or reproductions of objects, or substitutes or surrogates for them. My claim is that we see, quite literally, our dead relatives themselves when we look at photographs of them."

Perhaps unsurprisingly Walton's position has not garnered many followers, though it is a credit to the ingenuity of his argument that so many critics have sought to reveal where it goes wrong. My interest today, however, is not in Walton's argument or indeed those of his critics. Rather it is the the thought that the photographic may be transparent in a different though related sense - one that we can find Roland Barthes articulating - that is my starting point. The thought is this: when we look at photographs our attention very rarely strays from the subject matter of the image to contemplate the medium that gives us that image. As Barthes makes the point in Section 2 of Camera Lucida, 'Whatever it grants to vision, and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see.' Lets immediately dispense with Barthes' rather hyperbolic claim that this is 'always' the case and replace with the more modest 'usually'. So qualified, there is something right about what he says. Photographs typically function as relatively pristine windows: when we look at them our attention goes directly through them to their subject matters. Its quite a rare for the medium to assert itself and grab our attention.

So consider Andre Kertesz's Broken Plate, Paris, 1929:


I think it is quite natural and quite common for viewers who first encounter this image to suppose that what they are seeing is a photograph of Paris taken inside a building through a broken window with  a hole in it and various lines of fracture. I have shown it to numerous people who draw this conclusion right away. But we know this isn't the case, not least because Kertesz wrote of this image that:

"In this picture of Montmartre, I was just testing a new lens for a special effect. When I went to America, I left most of my material in Pais, and when I returned I found six percent of the glass-plate negatives were broken. This one I saved, but it had a hole in it. I printed it anyway. And accident helped me to produce a beautiful effect." (Kertesz on Kertesz)

Whether you discover this fact about the photograph by reading what Kertesz has to say about to, or by looking somewhat more carefully at picture and seeing that there is something not quite right about the broken window explanation of what we see, the effect upon upon our experience of the image is interesting. Indeed, I can easily get this experience when I look at the image despite knowing precisely what it is I am looking at. The only way I can think to characterise the experience  is to say that somehow our attention draws back from the scene - from the Montmartre buildings - to the image's surface. When this happens it seems much harder to attend to the Paris buildings; its as if they become ever so slightly vaguer as one's focus shifts to the surface foreground of the image.

The experience is quite similar to that had when looking through a window that has something on it, such as a crack, a stain or anything else that can be focused upon. When we focus upon the what's on the window our perceptual awareness of the scene outside that can be seen through the window is diminished. We don't cease to have any awareness of what is outside the window, but its vaguer and less focused.

That a similar experience can be had with photographs when the material medium draws our attention to the image surface can appear rather odd. After all, there are huge differences - not least a significant spatial difference - between a window and the world that can be seen through it. With photographs there are no counterparts to some - probably most - of these differences. The building of Montmartre and the cracks and hole in Kertesz's image reside together on the same surface. That we can experience the image is certain respects similar to the experience of looking through a window with cracks and a hole in it indicates something about perceptual psychology, but also that the window-like quality of many photographs is a visual metaphor so easily enabled by the photographic medium and its use. Its when the medium asserts itself and draws our attention to the photograph rather than what it is of that this visual metaphor comes to our attention. It doesn't happen that often, but when it does it can have have such a pleasing and interesting effect. Kertesz called this effect 'beautiful', and I find that a pleasing description of it.

Saturday, 21 April 2018

A 'Saucy' Photograph - "The End is In Sight"

Here is a photograph that I encountered on a major news website, illustrating an article that sceptically reviewed a recently published academic study arguing that going nude in public makes those who do it happier. The author's point, which was couched in intentional humour, was that shame about the nude body is just as natural as whatever happiness may be aroused by such behaviour among committed naturists. To be frank I probably wouldn't have read the article if it hadn't been illustrated with this wonderful photograph, which is entirely within the humorous spirit of the article:

The photograph is titled Nudism on Hinsdale Beach, Southport, July, 1979, but is not credited to a particular photographer, but rather to the stock photo agency linked to the Trinity Mirror newspaper group. They publish The Mirror newspaper, a centre-left British tabloid, that like all British tabloid newspapers is - or at least was - steeped in the culture of the 'saucy'.

I have never encountered an equivalent of the 'saucy' in another country, and perhaps it is distinctively British. Formally I suppose one could say that to be saucy is to be sexually suggestive in a lighthearted and humorous way, but it connotes so much more that is intimately bound up in a now largely extinct British veneer of Waspish prudishness. The mark of the saucy is innuendo and the double entendre - with my image above amusingly employing the latter - and it was once the staple of   the 'red top' tabloids, as well as certain types of British stage and screen humour.

But its hard to imagine this photography being made now, or if it was, being upstaged. Partly this is because the kind of religious protester and cultural critic at the centre of the image is very rare these days - at least in Britain. But also because our imagery is typically far more sexually explicit, lacking any respect for saucy humour. While sauciness was still common in popular British popular culture in the 1970s, by the 1980s it was a waning form. In the light of the long sexual revolution, it was at first able to assert itself as an instance of a more sexually aware and tolerant age - think of a television sitcom such as 'Are You Being Served?" -  before being rejected for its ultimately prudish presuppositions. We are also more aware that saucy humour often relied upon cruel attitudes and stereotypes, and we are less comfortable with and tolerant of such humour.    

So I'm not mourning the loss of the 'saucy' since most of its manifestations in Britain were awful, but this 'End is in Sight' image demonstrates that it wasn't all awful when its targets are not so much demeaned as teased. That is what this photograph does, and what saucy at its best can do, it teases rather than makes fun of its subjects.