[You know, I was going to toss out a challenge and see who could come up with the group I’m referencing with the title of this post, but in the age of Google, what the hell is the point? Google has made trivia contests obsolete. Unfortunately, a head filled with completely useless trivia is one of my few assets.]
My friend Jason recently sent me this photo of Mary, taken seconds after she’d crossed the finish line at Ironman USA, Lake Placid:
Mary said she had seen this and didn’t really like it because it is all blurry. That, however, is the reason I love this photo. I wish I had this kind of photo of me finishing at Wisconsin, to tell you the truth. This photo captures exactly what it is like to cross the line at an Ironman.
In this day and age when it is so easy to trade images like playing cards and circulate our hurried attempts to tame the world into a suitable frame, we have become more fixated than ever on what Roland Barthes described as the purely denotative function of photography: what the image shows. We tend to forget that throughout its relatively short history, photography, like painting, has been equally powerful as a connotative mechanism: what does the image evoke in us, the viewer?
The tragedy of this situation is that the vast majority of us who aren’t good photographers end up with our intentions horribly out of synch with our abilities. Think about all of those people lined up on the rim of the Grand Canyon, snapping away. Most of those photos are never going to capture the majesty, the scale, the vertigo, the disorientation, the humbling effect of the scene before them. How many times are our photos of our holidays vaguely disappointing? Leaving us with the feeling, once we return to them, that there’s something missing.
On a conscious level, most of us amateur shutterbugs (if it still make sense to use that term in an age of ccds) think that what we’re trying to do is to capture how that amazing vista, that famous building looked. But deep down I don’t think this is what we are trying to do at all. What we are really trying to do is capture how that moment felt. We want the photo to register, somehow, what we were feeling when we stood on the rim of the Grand Canyon, looked up at the Eiffel Tower, saw Michaelangelo’s David, witnessed U2 in concert. We want photography, in other words, to be impressionistic. We want it to be connotative, but our lack of skill mires us in the realm of disappointingly denotative.
Sometimes, however, there are fortunate accidents that remind us of that other side of photography, the way we want our images to be. This image is one of those. Denotatively it is a disaster. If I didn’t tell you it was Mary, you probably wouldn’t know. But that isn’t what this image is about. In fact, this could be an image of anyone. What matters to me about this image is that this is exactly what it felt like when I finished my Ironman. You can get some sense of this from my inadequate attempts to capture it in words, but in many ways this image communicates the moment so much more effectively.
A bewildering swirl of color, faces milling around, everything vaguely defined, you somehow at the center of it all, wobbling uncertainly, bright lights all around, disorientation and a sense that you are anywhere and everywhere and nowhere all at once. It is a wobbly image, moving, barely, under its own power, at once exhausted and exhilirated.