It may look like a scene from Bungalow Heaven, but it more accurately describes a darker reality: the blindness of parents and the violence of children. Take a close look at the child on the left. The familiar image of tow-headed innocence, he has turned a gun directly toward the photographer. He is that disturbing archetype: the smiling killer. His brother, meanwhile, is lost in a dream. Insensible to danger, blinded by his goggles, he holds up his hands in the classic gesture of surrender. He may understand his younger brother better than he knows.
Most disturbing of all is the idiot smile of the father, blissfully unaware of his damaged children. Either that or he is shipping out. Let someone else take care of this mess.
All of the totems of respectability are here: the neat little beard, the Homburg, the waistcoat, the key that dangles from the wrist of the granny. Everything speaks the language of propriety, expect for the subject of the scene itself. As if quoting from the opening lines of Genesis, there is a man, a woman, a tree, and a garden. The women plucks an apple from the tree and hands it temptingly to her hapless man. We look on, astonished at the force of a master narrative which continues to shape our experience of the world.
The bleakness of the scene actually goes a level deeper. These figures are not the youthful, lissome pair we typically see in depictions of Eden, but rather an aged couple who should presumably know better. The suggestion here is that we are somehow prisoners, trapped in patterns that are as old as time, fated to re-enact them without the possibility of release. In the moral world of this anonymous photograph, there will always be a tempting apple and the fatal desire to pluck it from the tree.
The album from which this image was taken tells us that these men are the Lairds. But they are much less men than a race of giants, more like the Nephilim of Genesis than the mortal men of our own experience. Even their family name hints at their status. They are the Lairds, the lords of this domain.
Look at their hands. Look at their sleeves. The men in front are too large for their jackets. They seem to be growing before our eyes, mythological creatures with great stone faces, gazing like the heads on Easter Island. The man who stands at the apex of this pyramid is the one in whom all things converge. More than the column on the porch behind him, he is the force that holds up this house, who directs the brace of humans before him. His serene control seems absolute.
Tulsa’s First Friday Arts District Crawl has been postponed because of inclement weather. No crawl today, but be sure to mark your calendar for next Friday, December 13. Philbrook Downtown will be open to the public and you can see “Unexpected: Vernacular Images from the Collection of Marc Boone Fitzerman” along with a million other great things, all at no charge. Downtown Tulsa is effervescently alive, and it happened in our lifetimes!
American masculinity used to be simpler: a man with tools in a backyard garage, stripping a motor down to the engine block. There would be grease and solvent and real exertion, enough to soak a worn pair of overalls, not the casual Friday golf shirt of this subject.
The theme here might be the complexities of gender, or a quick meditation on indeterminacy. We know the figure in the picture is a man because this is the way men look in our world. But the tools are pitiful: a scattering of plastic garden implements on the wall; a sorrowful clutter of Band-Aids and lighter fluid on the workbench. And instead of work, the man gazes in the mirror, the classic sign and accoutrement of femininity. The rest of the image amplifies this conceit, as reality dissolves into multiple reflections and nothing is solid enough to hold a hand. Is this a man? Yes, but.
Feeling pretty good in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Here’s the long shot into the gallery housing “Unexpected: Vernacular Photographs from the Collection of Marc Boone Fitzerman.” Curated by Rand Suffolk, Director of the Philbrook Museum, the show spotlights images from the 20th century. Today was Day I of a run that will conclude on May 18. If you’re in Tulsa, stop by!
What is the real subject of this picture? I am tempted to say it is the potbellied stove. It occupies more space than the figure of the woman and, in its rotund bulk, mocks her Depression-era leanness. It seems also to have appropriated the filigree of her dress.
Like some golem expanding before our eyes, the stove threatens to engulf her, to swallow her whole. Despite the look of appraisal in her eyes, she seems oblivious to the danger, foolish and unaware.
This image of a decanter set reminds us of a fundamental: photography is ubiquitous, embedded in all domains of culture, and photographs made for “artistic” purposes are one small subset of a larger whole. Whatever the point of origin of this image, it has more to do with sales catalogs and inventories than with gallery exhibits and museums of fine art.
But images of glassware have their own tradition. They appear in wall paintings in the ruins of Herculaneum (the other Pompeii). They are frequently featured in Netherlandish still lifes. The coldness of this image identifies it as a photograph; note the hard points of flash light on the flask and the glasses. But force is clearly at work in this arrangement in the raw and suggestive upthrust of the glassware. The correspondence was evidently irresistible to the photographer.
More complicated than it seems, this image is a riddle. What is the relationship between these two dandies? Why are they dressed so smartly for the lake? Is the figure on the left a young man or a young woman? Ultimately we cannot know much for certain. The lemon-colored pantsuit hints at femininity in the construction of the collar and the way the sleeve meets the cuff. but the photograph has entered the great slipstream of discards and any narrative link has been broken.
What remains is the pleasure of a visual rhyme. The hair color of the boy matches the color of the pantsuit. The hair color of the “girl” is linked to the color of the boy’s pants. Our eyes cross back and forth between them, tracing diagonals of correspondence. Whatever the original intention of the photographer, he has managed to set up a lively image requiring that our minds and eyes work back and forth across the scene.
Like an altarpiece painting of earth and heaven, this small print describes two worlds. In the portrait on the wall, an attentive lamb nuzzles the knee of the baby Jesus. The picture is suffused with pastoral calm.
The dog on the bed is also at rest, but it is everything the little lamb is not: tense and poised to leap to its feet. Everything expresses this-world readiness, the agitation of secular concern. If the bed is a crèche, crowned with light, there is no gentle spirit within it. Dressed in a tawdry, plastic hat, the dog looks just beyond the master with his camera. Its little cape is a silly affectation, a sad reminder of our vulgar circumstances.
The tiny portrait on the bureau stands in for us, forced to consider these competing worlds.