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.

No comments:

Post a comment