Robert Adams has a short chapter in Why People Photograph on humor in photography. He writes, “Visual art that is funny has always been…a rare species.” Indeed. There are lots of cute photos, sweet photos, photos that bring a smile to your face. But really funny photos, photos that make you laugh rather than simply smile, these do seem to be pretty rare. Adams gives a great example: Lee Friedlander’s 1966 photo showing a fire brigade posing for a graduation-style group photo – in front of a burning house. (You can see it at the Fraenkel Gallery’s online show, here.)
Well, National Geographic has just posted the funniest picture I’ve seen in a long time:
While the couple tried to take a picture of themselves, a squirrel heard the camera beeping and walked over to investigate. Auto-focus was drawn to the squirrel, and that was that. Click the picture to read more about it.
Why aren’t there more funny photos? If there were a secret to taking funny photos, I’d love to know it, because I bet there’s money in it!
It’s too easy to say that humor is mostly verbal. There may be a lot of truth to that, but it’s not enough. Occasionally the newspaper funnies are actually funny, and sometimes, they can be funny even without words. Berke Breathed’s Bill the Cat is funny plain and simple. And the great silent movies of Chaplin and Keaton can be hilarious.
Does humor require narrative? The cheeky squirrel photo is funny at first glance, but even funnier if you think about it for two seconds until you “get it,” that is, until you reconstruct in your head what must have happened. There certainly are photos that show the “after” state but imply the “before,” so you can infer from them a brief sequence of events. I can’t think of a good example off the top of my head but I know they’re out there.
Adams mentions incongruity as an element in humor. An arrogant dandy in a three piece suit who slips on a banana is funny. A poor old grandmother who slips and falls is an object of pity. Adams also suggests that it’s important that the subject in the photo be aware that they are part of a joke, but I am sure that can’t be right all the time. A photo of a cat who falling into the toilet bowl head first will be funny to us, although the cat doesn’t know it’s part of the joke and if it did, it would not consider the joke funny or, for that matter, in good taste.
I suspect the main problem is that real life simply doesn’t contain many moments of purely visual humor. Real life is crazy funny but it’s not usually funny just to look at. I don’t think I’m just not looking hard enough, although if you have to look hard, that pretty much proves my point. The humor in life usually does come from events that have a narrative structure – this person was in that situation expecting this other thing to happen, and then something unexpected happened instead. And these narratives are hard to compress into a single scene. (Note that I’m not denying the possibility of a humorous sequence of photos. But here I’m talking about “normal” photos taken singly.)
I can think very quickly of a hundred funny stories about things that have happened to me, or to me and my wife. But the only one I can think of that would have made a pretty good picture, goes back to when one of our daughters was in middle school in Houston. She was part of a school dance pageant. One of the acts involved a group of very young (first grade?) Mexican-American children dancing in traditional dress – girls wearing big flouncy skirts, boys wearing charro suits and sombreros. Well, it became apparent to the audience fairly early into their number that one boy was having a problem with his pants. His belt was too loose. He hiked his pants up whenever he had a chance but this was difficult because the dancing requires that he frequently hold hands with his partner, a girl, so his pants kept sliding down. By the middle of the number, the audience was laughing openly. Somehow the boy kept his pants on…until the end of the dance. When the final chords were being played, it became clear to the audience that the girls were going to jump into the arms of the boys. The boy had a decision to make. To lift the girl up he was going to have to use both of his hands. He made the right decision: he caught his girl. And his pants finally fell all the way to the floor. That would have made a very funny picture, because I think the viewer would have been able to fill in the rest of this narrative. Still, something a photo cannot do at all is create suspense, and that was one of the most suspenseful things I’ve ever seen. When the boy caught the girl, the audience erupted in laughter – and leapt to its feet to applaud the gallant young man. The photo would have been funny, but the event as it happened was hilarious.
There’s not a lot of humor in purely instrumental music, either, by the way.