I've been writing and thinking (the two are almost invariably intertwined for me -- writing focuses my random thoughts) about photos.
One of my favorite writers, John Berger, has a book of poetry called "And our faces, my heart, brief as photos."
That's pretty much the crux of it for me. We're mortal. Our faces will disappear. And even, or especially the photos that might "capture" and preserve our faces are brief.
Take this photo of my son Tom playing at EZ's Woodshed in Harlem.
What does it mean?
What does it mean to me?
Those are two very different questions.
To me, to Tom's father, it means -- it's a means to see Tom, or at least a picture of Tom. It makes me wish I had been there to watch and hear him perform with his trio in front of the painting of John Coltrane. It brings back all sorts of memories and makes my mind race to the future when I'll fly to New York to hear and see Tom in early December. It means that Tom is working and can pay his rent. And so on.
But all of these meanings are mine. I'm the one reading the photo this way. Those meanings are exactly as brief as I am. They'll be here for a few more years if I'm lucky.
By itself, the photo is some kind of historical record and could be read in terms of the shirt Tom's wearing, the way he wears his hair. A reader of the photo might conclude things about the myth of Coltrane from the train that sweeps across his body in the painting.
But personally, the photo is as brief as our faces.
That's all the more apparent in another photo I've been thinking about. It was taken in 1966 or 1967 on a landing strip near Lake Powell.
If you found this photo and had absolutely no context outside what you see, you could figure out several things.
The red-rock desert landscape makes some sense; and with enough effort you might even pinpoint this as a place overlooking Lake Powell. The clothing and hair styles might indicate the 1960's, although this is an eclectic bunch. There's a lot of information to be read from the boy on the far left: a basketball player's legs and height and Converse shoes. His shirt says "Farmington Scorpions" -- this group is from Farmington, New Mexico. The kneeling man has boots and haircut that might indicate some sort of educated outdoor profession. There's an FFA cowboy in the middle of the front row. And so on.
The brief meaning I bring to the photo is more personal and much more extensive. The basketball player is named Willard Washburn. The cowboy is Delbert Slaugh. The kneeling man is a petroleum engineer. The man in the blue shirt standing in the center has a trading post on the Navajo reservation. The man to his left owns a car dealership and will become the mayor of Farmington.
I'm standing behind the boy in the red shirt, Larry Echohawk, who will become the first Native American attorney general of any state and will only narrowly be defeated in a bid to become governor of the State of Idaho.
There's lots more to be told; but important here is that most of the meaning to be read from a photo (there's no meaning inherent in the photo -- it's just a bunch chemicals adhering to a piece of paper) is tied to memory. And memory is as brief as we are.
Finally, John Berger brings this all back to the value of diverse or interdisciplinary approaches to meaning:
There is never a single approach to something remembered. The remembered is not like the terminous at the end of a line. Numerous approaches or stimuli converge upon it and lead to it. Words, comparisons, signs need to create a context for a printed photograph in a comparable way; that is to say, they must mark and leave open diverse approaches.