Reading a photograph: Patricia Dalzell’s "Benita at Home…"

Excellent post over at The Online Photographer. The subjects of the post are, first, a photo by Patricia Dalzell, and second, a reading of that photo by another photographer, Ken Tanaka. I disagree with Ken Tanaka’s reading but am grateful to him for it; and I don’t feel bound to accept or be too influenced by Patricia Dalzell’s explanation of the photo’s background, but I’m grateful for that, too. I won’t reproduce the photo or the critique; you can and should bop over to TOP and see them both for yourself. It’s worth the click.

What I want to do is say a few things about criticism and the meaning of art. This is a pool I used to wade in pretty frequently in my days as an academic.

Superficiality is a virtue

A good critic in any art must be thoughtful but must first be observant, and to be truly observant, you must be disciplined, restrained, patient, humble. Or to put it differently, a good critic SHOULD be superficial, should be devoted to the surface, at least for a start. The problem with the way most folks look at photos (or poems, or movies, or whatever) is not that they are superficial, it’s that they are dismissive, they’re in a hurry. They FAIL to look even at the surface carefully. For most people, almost nothing is harder to see than what is right beneath their noses.

Thomas Aquinas, speaking in the Quodlibetales of the interpretation of scripture, said, Sensus spiritualis semper fundatur super litteralem, et procedit ex eo (“The spiritual meaning is always based on the literal meaning and proceeds from it”). In other words, look carefully at the literal level, the surface. Work hard to see the obvious and try to remain content with it as long as possible. Only then will you earn the right to step into the sanctum sanctorum of the deeper or less obvious meaning.

Ken Tanaka’s reading, like a lot of readings done in the last, oh, half century or so, demonstrates a willingness to get to the sanctum sanctorum too quickly, too carelessly. It is, in short, an overreading. He says he’s worried about the woman doing violence to him but in fact he does violence to her and to the photograph.

Don’t expect too many answers

You can’t ask too many questions about what’s NOT in the photograph. Or rather, you can ask them, but it’s not fair to expect those questions to be answered. You can’t start trying to figure out where the woman’s husband is, for example. I think it’s silly to ask what the woman is holding in the hand that’s in the pocket (a gun? a knife?). She has her hand in her pocket, that’s all, and we have no reason nor any right to assume she’s holding anything at all. Women get to put their hands in their pockets. Now, you are certainly allowed to notice the hand in the pocket. You can even sense that it’s meaningful in some way—but you can’t quite put your finger on what that way is. I would add, as a portrait photographer myself, that hands are a big problem in portrait sessions, especially in full-length shots like this one of Patricia Dalzell’s. I’ve often heard it said that actors like to smoke when acting because it gives them something to do with their hands.

Sometimes the photo does reveal a lot about its context and then you may be obliged to take it into consideration. A photo of a political leader is almost inevitably political. Cartier-Bresson’s famous photo of the woman who has been “outed” as a former concentration camp guard is also rich with meaningful context, which we know quite a bit about in part because Cartier-Bresson made a short documentary giving more of the incident for critics to chew on. My insistence on the importance of the surface is not meant to justify ignorance of WWII. We bring what we know to our experience of any work of art or craft. A photo of someone else’s dead dog may be touching. A photo of our own dead dog may bring us to tears. Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, as much as the esthetes would like it to.

But an awful lot of art lives in a chamber which, if not a vacuum, at least has a pretty thin atmosphere. Patricia Dalzell says that she tries to make her photos “timeless”, by which I take it she means first of all, “not easily dated.” I strive for the same thing, so I can see a kindred spirit’s work in this photograph. When was the photograph taken? Could have been almost any time in the twentieth century, I think. This is what I would call a private work. The subject is not a famous person and her story is not known. It’s quite wrong to make up a story of our own and foist it on the photo, just because we feel the urge to do so.

What do photos mean?

If we can’t ask what the woman ate for breakfast, where she’s going after the photo session is finished, or whether her raised eyebrow is in fact a sign of latent anger or hostility, then what does the photo “mean”?

This is the central, perennial question of criticism in all the arts, and the best answer has never changed: the photo (or poem, or painting, or sonata) means what it says, just that and nothing else. It isn’t a package that can be unwrapped to reveal the gift of meaning hidden inside. The package is the gift, the photo means what it is. No paraphrase or description can replace it.

Criticism isn’t the record of art’s meanings, not for a minute. Criticism is simply talk about art and it should always take us back to the work and help us see it (or hear it) more attentively. Moreover, all critics should realize that, while the work endures, all criticism is ephemeral. In the mid-twentieth century, we had a critical renaissance in which a lot of very smart people thought—and even dared to say aloud—that criticism had replaced art. Silly, silly, silly.

Anyway, a lot of criticism can be useful even when it’s very wrong. Criticism that puts bad, inappropriate or distracting thoughts into your head that you have trouble removing, well, that’s just bad. But some criticism is wrong but provocatively so. It provokes us to look harder at the work if only to see if the critic is right or wrong, or at some point perhaps in order to find evidence of the critic’s wrongness. That’s okay. Criticism is talk about art. And strong art can survive bad criticism. Shakespeare’s plays have, and while of course it isn’t a masterpiece in the league of King Lear, this portrait by Patricia Dalzell will survive a little misreading, too.

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