Archives for posts with tag: air shaft

It’s interesting how what something’s called influences–or reflects– how we feel about it. While Shakespeare may have been on to something when he wrote that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” and Gertrude Stein may have been full of wisdom about a rose being a rose being a rose, I notice that the word “rose,” even by other names (rosa, ros, róża, ruusu , roos , роза , or 薔薇 ), is more appealing in its way than “skunkweed” or “poison sumac.” The rose might easily have been descriptively called a “painful bloodweed,” which might have made receiving a dozen of them possibly somewhat less romantic.

(This, of course, gets us into a chicken-and-egg territory I’m not sure I want to enter, where we ask if what we think is beautiful would be different if we lived on an alternate world of pale gray blobs. I suspect we would arbitrarily deem some pale gray blobs more subtly beautiful than others, because we would be so attuned to the varying types and shades of gray blobbiness we lived with every day, and it is only our culturally- and environmentally-influenced perceptions that make the  full spectrum of colors and nearly infinite variety of shapes we are surrounded with seem superior to a landscape of gray blobs. I get this all the time, mostly from people who live in Chicago or New York or Boston: “Oh but I could never live in Southern California, because I do so love my four seasons.” Well, nonsense. There are four seasons in SoCal, they are just (I’ve learned, a few years after being transplanted from the Midwest) reflected in subtle changes in the climate. The context of seventy-and-sunny — and how horrifying and ghastly is that? — is pretty constant, but there are details that clearly say “fall” or “spring” or “winter” or “summer.” Plus, it’s seventy-and-sunny when my Chicago friends are slipping on ice in the gloom and getting slush blown up their pants, so nyah.)

Jeez, that parenthetical went on a bit. Someone seem to have an Issue. Apologies.

We were talking about names, I believe, at the start of that paragraph that somehow got away from me. A picture, it’s generally agreed, is worth somewhere in the vicinity of a thousand words. However, there’s a role for words in most photographs, and that’s as a title.

The title of a photo can be more than just a statement of what the photograph is a picture of (“Wet Water Avens”), although that’s important. And a title of a photo can be more than simply an identifier of the picture in a series (“Clothes Make the Man 3“). The title can be the photographer’s way of communicating directly with the viewer not only by showing the observer what the photographer saw, but more importantly how he or she saw it as well. A title like that isn’t just a label on a photo, but an intrinsic part of the observer’s whole experience of the photo, a way to bring the observer into the photographer’s sense of what was seen, and what it meant, resulting in a more intimate relationship among  photographer, photograph, and observer than simple viewage.

This, interestingly enough, wanders us into the fascinating field of semiotics which addresses, among other not-really-relevant-in-the-grocery-store considerations as the relationship between names (the signs) and the named (the signified); how those signs and signifiers reflect broader linguistic, social, cultural, and even biological structures (structuralism); and what the signs mean functionally, emotionally, and psychologically to the people who use them. And all that verbiage there serves a dual function here: First, it describes the reality of the relationship between titles and photographs, which is the ostensible topic of this blog (although as in many cases of this blog, its author seems to be taking his own sweet time getting down to the issue at hand); Second, it establishes that I’m a smarty know-it-all who spent way too much of his time in graduate studies in English. Some may have already suspected this, but it’s good to get it out on the table.

All this litcrit theorybabble boils down to something simple: photograph titles are important, not because they tell the viewer what it is he or she is looking at, but because they can more fully inform the viewer about the photographer, what he or she saw, and how the photographer’s mind interpreted what was being seen. To the extent that you think that three-way relationship (no, not that kind!) between photograph, photographer, and viewer is desirable or creates a more interesting overall experience of a photograph, the more you’ll agree that the title is more than just a name-for-a-thing; it is part and parcel of the thing itself. It can (and probably is, frequently) argued that a photograph should embrace its visual purity and stand alone; that the photographer is a vehicle for self-expression and that that’s where his or her role ends; that the important thing is the relationship of viewer to viewed, and the photographer’s opinion matters not a whit.

This is the same argument that goes on in literary criticism circles, about whether it matters that Dickens, for all his celebration of families, was something of an unpleasant man to his own; or that Carl Sandberg was a violent man; or that Walt Whitman was a not-at-all-secret homosexual. The work, say the purists, stands alone, unfettered by the author’s life experience. That experience may have created the work, but the only thing that matters is the work itself, and the audience’s reading of it. Once the last i is dotted and t crossed, the author should just sit down and be quiet. On the other hand, in film criticism, for instance, the auteur theory holds the opposite: that the work is all about its creator, and the audience’s interest should be primarily in who did it and how, not what was done. (This happy approach permits the celebration of half-assed film-makers as long as they have a recognizable style and technique, regardless of how satisfying the end result may be for an audience.) By now it should be obvious that I fall onto the “author-matters” side of things, but not so far as to say the viewer doesn’t.

Photography is no different than film or literature, in this way, as an art form. To me, that three-way relationship is part of what makes photography so instrinsically intimate an artform. What the photo shows (unless, of course, it’s been Photoshopped within an inch of its life) is pretty much what I saw. The viewer shares the inside-my-head viewpoint of that single instant in time and space. The photograph’s title (yes, we do eventually return to the topic) can be a way for the photographer to create an even more intimate view: in effect saying, “This is what I was thinking when I saw what you see.”

But, as has been said, a picture is worth a thousand words; and since we’re now well beyond that magical millennial point, how about I shut up and bring on the pictures. There follow some examples of what I mean, drawn from my own work. I would really like to hear what you’ve called your photos, and why you chose to call them that. What role do titles play in the photos you take? Please share some examples, along with the “why” behind your “what.” If you include a link to the image in your comment, that would be even more faboulous.

But while you’re working on that, here are some of mine:

spinning slot machine display

The spinning slot machine display could easily have been called "Vegas IV" or "Slot Machine." But the title "Anticipation" makes it, it seems to me, more about the experience than the thing itself.

elevator shaft and hotel balconies

This photo of the atrium and elevator shaft inside the Marriott Marquis in Atlanta, Georgia could easily be just a nicely-balanced architectural study. It's that, but to me it seemed organic and physical, as the title, "Spine," suggests.

This covered walkway in Zhangshen Park, Beijing, is--at least to me-- more about the composition than the place. The title, "Converging Lines," helps focus the viewer on that flattened aspect of the photo as geometry, rather than a pretty park near The Forbidden City.

Of course, sometimes a photo just cries out to be a punchline. This is the headquarters of the "Workers Daily" newspaper in Beijing. When I saw the "I" had dropped off, I immediately was reminded of the tired saying about teamwork, and there we were: "There is no "I" in Comrade"

Sometimes the title is both self-referentially jokish and at the same time can say something about the photo. Here, the title ("He is So") obviously refers to the model's shirt. On the other hand, his behavior, his natural and unguarged laughter in this moment -- and the fact that he would own this shirt -- all suggest something "so" about him as well.

I talked about this photo before, but it's relevant here because the title ("The Pink Room") points the viewer to the thing I hadn't seen, even when the photo was taken. Far from being a simple airshaft study, focusing the viewer's attention on a single interesting window shares the evocative mystery and odd melancholy I felt when I first discovered it.

Sometimes a photo title can indicate it's part of a series, but still be more subjective at the same time. Here, a series of businesses shut down due to the economic recession are presented editorially. The title's reference ("Invisible Hand") refers sarcastically to Adam Smith's notion of an unseen force that rationally guides macroeconomics. The photo isn't just a storefront; it's a commentary on the shortcomings of American capitalism.

The Algonquin Hotel is an historic New York City property situated on 44th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, about  two blocks from Times Square.  Built in 1902, the Algonquin is probably most noted for the Round Table, a regular lunchtime gathering of brilliant young literary types including Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Edna Ferber, and George S. Kaufman, who set the standard for witty, acerbic criticism. (Parker’s reviews are known, for instance, for such gems as “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly; it should be thrown with great force;” “Miss Hepburn’s performance ran the emotional gamut from A to B;” and “If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.”)

I stayed one night at the Algonquin, during a ten-day series of seemingly endless board of directors meetings in New Brunswick, NJ. New Brunswick is, mercifully, less than an hour’s train ride from New York, and a one-day break in the PowerPoint festivities gave me the opportunity to abandon New Jersey and see a Broadway show (it was the utterly brilliant “Follies” revival, with Bernadette Peters, if you must know). Being dedicated to personal comfort and convenience, I decided to spend the night in the city, and take the train back to hell–er, New Jersey–the following morning. And the Algonquin is where I stayed.

The Algonquin is small and charming, and the rooms even smaller and more charming. My room, for instance, was exactly large enough to contain a full-size bed with just enough space to walk around it. My view (and here, at last, we get to the meat of this thing) was of the air shaft. For those of you unfamiliar with New York urban design, all residential buildings erected after 1871 were required to have a window opening to the outside in every unit. Since not all apartments could be on the front, with charming views of parks and the skyline, space was left between buildings that would otherwise have abutted each other at the sides and back. The result is the air shaft: a tall, undecorated brick-lined well punctured with windows and accented by ductwork, ventilation systems, and exposed plumbing, with a patch of sky just visible if you twist your head the right way.

But this is supposed to be about photography, though, and not about urban design or architecture or literary history, so I’ll get to the point.

In Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about being the “attentive eye,” that finds how “each moment of the year has its own beauty and…beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before and shall never be seen again.” I don’t know about the “never before/never again” bit, since my room at the Algonquin presumably has a pretty rapid turnover rate, but the bit about finding beauty in each moment is relevant. That’s because, to me, there was stunning and stark beauty outside my window; it was only necessary to get past the “oh damn I don’t have a nice view” response, and really start looking:

Air shaft at night

There was, for instance, a large steel tube running up the side of the shaft. Whether this was for ventilation, or heat, or a garbage chute I have no idea. What I do know is that it photographed well:

Close up of steel chute

But look again at that first photo of the air shaft. I honestly didn’t notice it at the time, but only when I was safely back in Southern California cropping the photos in Photoshop. Look closely: just above the water tank on the roof of a neighboring building, there’s a bright pink room. The whole photo is very muted (it was, in fact, around 11PM when I took this photo, so it was about as dark as New York gets, and the exposure  (0.8 at f/3.5) was challenging for a hand-held shot), but there’s a bright pink window in the upper right.

To me, it’s a mysterious and evocative little detail. It makes me wonder who lives there, and why their room is so garish, and what exactly goes on up there. The neighboring rooms aren’t festively colored, just that one. Is it a one-window studio apartment inhabited by an uninhibited Bohemian artist, with beaded curtains and furnished in eclectic thrift-store chic? A prostitute’s bedroom? A little girl’s nursery? A lonely woman clinging tragically to her youth? The gamut of possibilities runs considerably farther than Dorothy Parker’s estimation of Hepburn’s acting.

It’s a tiny detail in the overall image, but it lends itself to the title: “The Pink Room.” What I like about that title is that it forces the observer to look for the detail that gives the photo its name. At first glance, a nighttime view of an air shaft should be called “Air Shaft, Night, 43” or something. “The Pink Room” suggests a lot of other possibilities not entirely expected.

This makes me think that maybe I’ll write about titling photos someday. But for now, it’s really all about this one: Finding the strange and mysterious little pink window in the vaster image of exposed brick and steel and window air conditioners. Being a photographer is about being Emerson’s “attentive eye,” after all. I would have been prouder had I noticed the pink window when I was taking the picture, but I was honestly thinking more about the air shaft as a whole: how to frame its lines and textures and perspective in my viewfinder, and how to hold the camera still for a long exposure in the dark, and how to avoid reflections in the glass window I was shooting through. I was distracted by all those “big picture” considerations from the very real, very interesting bit that, in the end, made the photo unique.

And that, I guess, is the moral of this story: You may think you’re taking a picture of one thing, only to find out later that you were really taking an altogether different picture. And that’s OK: the finding of the real “thingness” of what’s being photographed is as much a part of the photographer’s art as finding beauty in places and things that run contrary to established norms of aesthetic beauty, like air shafts for instance.

Allerton Hotel, Chicago, air shaft at night


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