Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Two grammars


The early twentieth-century social reformer Lewis W. Hine thought of his photographs as illustrations. He provided them with texts, and he intended those texts to bring another text into existence: a law banning child labor. Because such a law didn't exist at the moment Hine was writing, he wrote in the present tense. There in the present his annotations implied an optative content (May child labor cease!), but they themselves were rigorously indicative: a sequence of noun phrases and verb phrases, ceasing to signify as soon as they reached the frame which held them within each image. Here within the limits of this piece of photosensitized paper, say Hine's words, is what is happening: right here, right now. 

Here is one of the texts, for instance. "John Howell, an Indianapolis newsboy. Makes 75 cents some days. Begins at 6 A.M., Sundays. Lives at 215 W. Michigan St. August 1908." 

And here is the illustration that goes with it.

Library of Congress, via
Click to enlarge.

We'd like to think that the little boy in this picture isn't alone. Within the image, for the fraction of a second that it took for the image to enter history, he had a pair of companions: the shadows of Hine and his camera. The man's shadow, too, is comfortingly bulked by the shapes of an overcoat and a hat. Man, coat, and hat form one prone mass, black and solid on the solid sidewalk. Next to it lies the shadow of the recording instrument, solid and oblong on the tripod that holds it rock-steady. From there it can look down on the boy.

But of course that view of the image is only the literary effect called pathos. Within his image, the boy does not look up at the camera. There's no reason why he should, because there on his sidewalk it's only an extension of its shadow. Farther down the sidewalk, in sunlight, are some adults whose place in the composition fails to indicate that they'll buy the boy's newspapers. So there's no point in the boy's looking down at the newspapers either, or up at the mailbox which holds no news for him. All he has in the way of an idea to stand between him and the world is a cap, lopsided on his head to echo his sidelong posture and downcast eyes, and blazoned with two words which have nothing at all to say to the rest of their picture:

Celery Cola.


Hine's picture originates in the first person and extends to the second, bridged from the photographer's "I" to his legislators' "you" by the long double shadow of the man and his camera. Now compare Weegee's "Juvenile delinquent and press photographers."
Ca. 1940. International Center of Photography
collection,, accession no. 14017.1993

A fat little boy is crammed into a corner of an image. It isn't his image; the landlord of its space is that battery of typewriters, primed to accuse to the universe on the other side of the barred window. Behind them stand the photographers, looking down like Lewis Hine but with their faces showing. This time it's only the boy's face that can't, for the moment, be seen. When it is seen, in images illustrating texts written on those typewriters, laws already written will move in and obliterate the boy. Weegee's photograph presents its subject in the third person, historical present tense, but it also has an optative content, just like Hine's first-person image. It says, "May this boy disappear!" and its pathos is that it records the moment just before it effects the disappearance.

1 comment:

Charles Montgomery said...


but I read the second photograph as not third-person optative, but first-person subjunctive, or perhaps a combination.

If you look solely from the view of the photographer, ge may be suggesting something optative, but even though that pic is 3rd person (I guess most pics are? I haven't thought much about it), my immediate narrative stance was with the JD and the text I got was "I wish I were the hell out of here."

I dunno.. this is probably because I'm a lit guy, not an art guy.

Secondarily, I wondered if this was one of the first recursive photos (photographing a photographer) about? This has become a grand tradition - two people photographing each other, or photographing photographers massed at some sporting event - but there had to be some kind of "aha" moment when photographers first thought of this.

It's a thesis for some scheming little weasel who wants to stay away from 'real' academic subjects. ;-)

This interested me enough that I did some poking around in Google images to see what was there. That was enough so that I posted something about it on my blog (and threw in a plug for your site for all 20 of my readers LOL) where you can see the kind of photos I mean and my plan to get into the Guinness Book of World Records.

random thoughts on photo recursivity here