EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS TRY TO IDENTIFY the so-called “eternal” verities of life, the common elements of experience that are unchanging over time. We all find our way to sunsets, shores, the mysteries of the human face, the course of light. But how about the more subjective “truths”, those purely emotional facts which may wax and wane with passing fancy?
Can we say, visually, what beauty is, or for that matter, what the depiction of humor, truth, or other subjective values should look like? Pictures of anything that is governed by fashion or fad will find themselves shredded by the same temporal process that makes Grandpa’s handlebar moustache seem ridiculous rather than rakish and makes the miniskirt a measure of folly instead of hipness.
Consider something as personal as a toy. In one era, its features are comical and cute, whereas, a few decades later, they might register as, well, creepy. As a case in point, the image seen above is of a 19th-century automaton, a mechanized dancing musical doll called “The Mask Vendor”. The grinning harlequin on the right is the vendor, and the visage at left is one of his wares, which range in expression from foolish to demonic. Good times, eh? Oh, look at this jolly prankster selling “counterfeits” of faces! What rascally fun!
I can tell you, as a tour guide in the museum that “the Vendor” calls home, that he is regarded with horror, not joy, and that the feeling he projects on young visitors is one of dread, not mischief (one Hispanic tour guest, a seven-year-old, referred to him, shakily, as “el Diablo!”). So how to make a picture of such an oddity?
As a photographer, I’m in an odd place here. I have enough historic knowledge to know that the doll was originally associated with gaiety, and yet I live in a time in which its message of fun has long since been twisted and corrupted to suggest something dark…..so much so that any image I make of it, as filtered through current-day sensitivities, must shift between both “realities”. I am thus free to add as much irony or ghoulishness as I choose, like the veneer of haze I added to accentuate the dreariness/nightmarishness of the thing. Nothing is over the top.
Even when we snap something as eternal as a sunrise, we may unconsciously be adding some additional layer of ourselves as a similarly hazy veneer. But how can it be helped? Unlike the Vendor, we’re only human. Brrrrrr.