Between Machine and Eye

Morgan Meis at The Easel: This photograph is the kind of photograph you’d throw away. If you’re working with a digital camera, you would immediately delete it. It’s a disaster. Trash it and move on. There’s a big metal bar in the middle of the shot. It must be from a gate or something. The metal bar not only dominates the very center of the picture, it’s also so close to the camera that the bar is blurred at the top. Technically speaking, that is a no-no. This is a terrible photograph.

And yet, the very thing that seems at first so terrible is what makes the picture so compelling. If the obscuring bar wasn’t there, we would know too much, visually speaking, about the woman behind the bar. As it is, she is obscured in just the right way. Her one looming and seemingly unblinking eye gets all the attention it needs and deserves. The woman further in the background, with her timid glance and questioning mouth, only heightens the self-assured intensity of the giant eye.

Look closer. There is another bar-obscured face to the left of the giant eye and a headless torso to the top right. There is a plethora of metal, turned and shaped in different kinds of designs. In some ways, the photo is a study of the way that iron and iron-like substances can be both hard and soft, dominating and decorative at the same time. It is also, you could argue, a photo about the different shapes that can be made with human hair. Sweeping, sculptural, wispy.

And it will always be a great portrait of the human eyeball. The thing that sees. The thing that is seen. Perhaps the most mysterious spherical thing in the universe. What is one ever really looking at when one looks into an eye?

So, we have a photograph that seems like a mistake but is also impossibly compelling. The photograph is a glorious accident.

And that is the tantalizing doubt attached to photographs like this, photos that come from the tradition sometimes called street photography or even snapshot photography. Is there photographic skill here, a mastery being displayed by those who take these kinds of photos? Couldn’t this photo have been taken by someone who had no special skill in photography at all?

In fact, the photograph was taken by Lee Friedlander, one of the more celebrated photographers of the last sixty years. And this photograph, in particular, was recently exhibited in a show curated by the filmmaker Joel Coen.

For now, back to the central conundrum of photography, art, and skill…

More here.

Morgan Meis is a Contributing Editor at The Easel. He is a prominent US author and essayist who writes on art and culture. He won an Andy Warhol/Creative Capital Arts Writer Award in 2009 and the Whiting Award for non-fiction in 2013. Morgan contributes to the New Yorker, is an editor at 3 Quarks Daily and was formerly a contributing editor of The Smart Set. He holds a PhD in philosophy from the New School.