Not Knowing

Weegee, [Model and photographer on the beach], ca. 1956

Lou Bernstein, Man in Suit, Panama Hat, Sleeping on Beach, 1957

Unidentified Photographer, [Unidentified Woman at “Beach”], ca. 1880

Alfred Eisenstaedt, A New York vacationer in Miami Beach, 1940

Danny Lyon, Showers, Diagnostic Unit, Texas, 1967-69

Our vision-centered consciousness is designed to read faces.  There are about fifty facial muscles that make a limited number of expressions, but we are programmed to discern hundreds of minute changes on the landscape of the human face.  Between the basic expressions of anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and, surprise, there are hundreds of nuanced messages we pick up on.  We read faces in images as well, and we try to ascertain the emotional state of the person we see.  It’s how we are wired.   Advertisers have long-known this fact and exploited it to their advantage.  It is also part of the power dynamic inherent between an image and a viewer.  Rather than presenting an obvious emotional content in some photographs, either by design or unintentionally, some images are able to produce a multiplicity of signification.  It is this space between the signifier and the signified that puts the viewer in the position to engage more directly with the work and generate a personalized meaning.

Generally speaking, images which don’t allow access to the information contained in a face, disturb us.  A tension is created by this simple act of omission.  In this circumstance we look to other things to help us determine meaning.  An emotional access to the contact is lost and so we turn to objects, gestures, and any discernible context in the image to guide us to a reasonable reading of what we are seeing.  In the images that follow we will question how meaning is generated in the absence of faces.

The woman with the umbrella is posing for the camera.  Her back is to us and the photographer’s face is hidden behind the apparatus.  Is she a model sporting a fake smile?  Is she sunburned, protecting herself with the umbrella and unable to hide her discomfort?  She could also be married to the photographer, on holiday in an exotic location; or is he her father taking pictures for a beauty contest he wants her to enter but that she feels unexcited about?  And in a more sinister reading he could be a stranger preying on the wishful aspirations of a young actress, getting paid to take pictures that will never make it to the desk of any casting director.  Being unable to read any facial information the visual text remains open-ended unless we have more information from the photographer, which in this case, it appears we don’t.

The image of the man with the hat on the beach in daylight is enigmatic.  He might be drunk or even dead. He might be the photographer’s friend being playful, fully dressed and yet rolling in the sand.  We don’t see his face and as a result we must assess his body language.  He is in an awkward position, even for a drunk who fell asleep.  The photographer has cropped the image in a way that seems intentioned on keeping an “easy read” unavailable to us.  We are forced to create a context and generate our own meaning.  Some might argue that this tension created by the open-ended meaning is pleasurable but others might find it disconcerting.

The oldest image in this group is the woman with long hair looking through binoculars.  But where is she looking?  After all, she is in a studio, not on a real beach.  And if she is pretending to be on the beach, why is her attire not concomitant with that imagined location? We are then forced to think of her gesture.  She has turned her back to us with the excuse of looking through the spyglass.  Is she showing us her very long hair?  has the photographer as her to pose in such a way?  If so, why this pose in front of a fake beach?  We simply don’t know, and in not knowing we can consider a plurality of possibilities.

In the two remaining images we are given information in the form of a caption from the photographers.  Yes, it sheds light on the context but a tension remains.  Did the woman in the fur coat on the beach turn away in a scowl, angry at being photographed?  Why would she be wearing such a coat on Miami Beach?  Is she crazy?  Is she showing off?  It is a joke?  Is she on the set of a film?  And on the other extreme of the social scale we see tattooed inmates in a detentions center shower.  Do we expect their faces to reveal some “criminality” were we able to see them?  Are they purposely turning away from the camera and hiding their faces in shame for being in jail, feeling vulnerable in their nudity?  Or have they disregarded the presence of the photographer as merely another authority figure not to be confronted with a direct gaze?

In considering the process by which we produce meaning regarding an image, we expand our methods of decoding.  But it is interesting to start with such a basic gap in what we are able to know when the expression of a face is unavailable to guide us.

Jorge Alberto Perez, ICP-Bard MFA 2012

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