Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Same River Twice

One of the fun aspects of photos is that they can change over time. Of course this isn't exactly true. Photos stay the same. We change. But the effect is similar. It's like trying to jump in the same river twice. Sometimes I will look at old favorites and wonder what I ever could have liked about them. And the opposite happens just as often. A photo will occasionally grow on me over time. 

This one, for example:

When I made this photo last summer it was just a quick grab shot. Ben and Zane had taken a mud bath and I felt obliged to document it. Two kids on the summer dock. How typical. In fact I shoot my kids all the time just as most parents do, and usually the resulting photos are nothing special. So I sort of put this one in that first. 

But the more I looked at it the more I wondered. Why is Ben smiling and Zane frowning? Has he been habituated to mug for the camera? Or is he smiling because his body is more developed than his cousin who is just a few months younger? Or is it something more mundane? Perhaps he just ate a Twinkie?

Boxers, 1929, August Sander
My favorite August Sander portrait poses the same dilemma. Why is one boxer smiling and the other stern? Who knows? Maybe not even Sander himself. In any case it's an easy way into the photo. We see the faces, then we gradually notice that this carefully paired duo is a perfect mismatch in just about every way possible.

I don't pretend to be in Sander's league. But my photo has some mystery. What's going on here? Is the scene saying something about their personalities? Zane has always been the serious one. Ben eager to please. What's going on with their body language? Did Ben just win an argument? Who tracked those prints behind them? And what about the mud? Ben seems to wear his proudly whereas Zane looks like he just emerged from a pit. The more I look the more mismatches emerge.

Then there's the tantalizing possibility —embedded in all good photos— that the scene came together by accident, and that all of these suppositions are meaningless. I just happened to catch two fleeting expressions on two fleeting bodies and that's it. Because that's just what cameras do, the end. Perhaps that's what happened in Sander's photo too.

From a photo alone it's impossible to know. But the good photos —the ones that I appreciate more over time— are the ones which open themselves to questions like these and don't try to answer them. I might look at this photo of Ben and Zane in 10 years and still wonder what's going on. Or maybe by then something will have happened which explains the scene. 

The ones which seem to change over time, that in fact remind me that I'm changing —I suspect those are the keepers.

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