THINKING WHILE LOOKING; DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME!

How you interpret old photographs may depend on who’s looking at the picture. It’s different if the subject is you or someone else. Looking at myself, I may think: Oh, come on, now! Was my hair really that long? Did I actually wear mutton chop whiskers, yet have a clean-shaven chin? No way! Could I have possibly worn a transparent shirt, blooming with clusters of orange flowers?

But others in a photograph may be instantly recognizable; that’s the way they remain fixed in your memory. (Oh, yes! I recall those earrings; I bought them for her. That face she makes! What a pixie she was! So saucy, so exuberant! How utterly charming!)

And yet – take care! A photo may capture a moment sliced too thin to bear a sturdy resemblance to reality. Your initial reaction to that tissue-thin moment (How saucy and exuberant she is!! How charming! What a pixie!) belies both what came before and after. Why does she look saucy? Does her pose reflect the argument that had just transpired between you? Can her sauciness be interpreted as a gesture of defiance, expressed with daunting cupidity? And what came afterwards? Do you remember now? Perhaps an even deeper rift? Awakened by what you now see as a refusal to accommodate, to compromise, to defer?

A photograph never lies? What a joke! Photographs may be generous or constricted in space, accommodating a vast prairie or the huge sprawl of the Pacific, or squeezing down to a slice of room, the plane of a face, the whorls of a single thumb. But in time, how incredibly restricted! Less than half a second, snatched from the ongoing flux and stream of a lifetime? Without a larger temporal context, it seems astonishingly untrue, incomplete!

Yet again, there are photographs that – when you look at them – you have the feeling you have just stared into the face of truth, gained access to a truth unavailable to you before. Such was my feeling on looking recently at the photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson in the movie documentary about his life’s work, called “The Impassioned Eye.” Many make you feel you wouldn’t have seen what was there if the photographer hadn’t shown you.

Truth is very complicated, then, and many-sided. Too much context may lead to even less truth than a single quick moment in time.

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