Noiseless, an image hangs, suspended on a wall. A piece of paper coated in chemicals designed to turn black when exposed to light. Under someone’s touch the surface would be textured in tiny bumps. A slightly vinegary smell has lingered on the photo because of the chemicals that have seeped into its fibres. But a photo has not been made to hear, touch, smell or taste, it is made to see. A series of shades that are only decoded when viewed by the audiences eyes.
Motionless, it hangs, as people walk around the room. Some glance and move on, their eyes finding nothing to pursue in it, seeing only a simple image of an unknown young boy. Others stop, their eyes sweep slowly across the picture and absorb the intricacies of the way the light and shade interplay across the image and how it renders the boy as its subject. Aware or unaware of how different it may look through someone else’s eyes. The photograph itself is an unconscious object, the only art form that purports to be a representation of reality free from distortion. And yet if it was so, how could it be viewed so differently?
The boy’s look of determination draws me to the picture. The intensity of the stare communicated that though young he knew where he was going. The contrast between the age of the wood in the background, the rust marks of the rivets and the boy’s youth is indicative of the decay of the old and the emergence of the new. The juxtaposition between the boy’s simple dress and the elaborate door-latch by his right shoulder shows that he will end up somewhere grander than his present surroundings. The photograph is a symbol for how these days hard work and strength can bring you from humble beginnings into wealth and affluence. It shows how a poor provincial boy can become a successful businessman; like me.
I hate the photo, just another dull photograph of some obscure boy. I glance at it quickly and move on. But then Emile drags me back to it, raving about how much he loves it. I instantly sneer at the photo but wish that I had hidden my dislike of it. Emile is the one who loved art and talking about it so I usually play along. I need to think of a better reason than the fact I think it’s dull.
“Don’t you like it?” he asks in a way that lets me know that if I don’t I will be out on the street shortly.
“I do, I do like it. I like what the artist has hidden within the image, the ambiguity of the boys expression.” I reply quickly.
“In what way?” he asks; his voice betrays his mistrust of my response. The very same voice he uses right before he screams at how much of a useless person I am and how I take all his money.
“At first glance the boy looks so determined but on closer inspection you can see something else. See how his lip is curled up on one side, almost like he is trying to stop it from quivering. The boy is trying to put on a brave face but he is actually scared; of disappointing those that have high hopes for him, of not living up to his own expectations, of the uncertainty of his future. His determination is a mask for his fear.”
It is the very same look that Arnaud had on his face when told me he was breaking off our engagement. He was so afraid, of hurting me, but more afraid of his family’s disapproval. So the young boy put on his face of determination and broke a young girls heart.
“That’s why I sneered at first, I don’t like pretenders.”
Emile smiles; taking my arm he leads me away from the photo. “That’s why I love coming to art galleries with you, you always see detail I never would have picked up.”
I turn and take a last look at the photo; it could have very well been Arnaud except for the time that had elapsed, the same clothes, the same haircut, and the same expression. What would have my life been like if his family approved of me and I would have been married into a simple life? I turn away from the photo and hope I never see it again. I hate it.
My brother bought the book for me, it was a nice thought, to buy the book that contained the image of my son but the second I see the image I wished he hadn’t. It wasn’t my son. Of course it actually was, I was there as the photographer had pointed the camera at him, told him to be himself and shot. I know in my mind that this image in black and white is of my son but it’s not how I see him. The lighting made his face look so chiselled, so grown-up. My son isn’t that close to being a man, he still carries some of his baby fat around his face; I can still see the chubby cheeks he had as a baby. The sun had made his eyes squint so he looked so angry. My son Is a gentle boy, a kind boy who never looks angrily at anyone and always has sweet smile on his face. I had asked the photographer if he would take one where my son smiled but he shrugged me off. This picture, this straight image in this book is not my son. The image doesn’t do him justice.
The black eye of the camera stares at me, the photographers face obscured by machine. I see the eye move with a click. At first I feel nervous, knowing that the camera is unfeeling. More people than the photographer will stare through the lens and see me. They might see through me, into my thoughts and my feelings. Then the thought hits me, the camera is more of a mirror then a lens. Whatever they see in the image of me is a reflection of themselves.
Do you think a photograph is a true representation of reality? Do you think it’s a form of art? Do you think we bring our own experiences to viewing a photograph?
This story was inspired by the image Young Boy, Gondeville, Charentes, France by Paul Strand