An imposing woman stands with bare feet on dry dirt, her round cheeks gathered tight, pulling her chin upwards to meet her frown. Her thin, graying hair is pulled back, revealing a broad forehead and deeply shadowed eyes that squint from behind teardrop glasses. A thin, older man angles towards the woman, pressing the frame of a photograph image against the bulk of her waist and breast. His left hand lingers in the pocket of his dress pants, and, although his leather shoes point forward, his face is turned, with eyes cast away. In the photograph suspended between them, a young man poses for his portrait, dressed smartly in a collared shirt and dark tie. His chiseled face scales to and aligns with a backseat window in the decommissioned jalopy behind him. In that very car, the young man had drowned.
Words can assign for the portrait a poignant connotation, as seen in this example from T. M. Wathen’s photo-essay, “Kentucky 1975-78.” His caption reads, Couple Holding a Portrait of Their Son (standing in front of the car he drowned in). With nine parenthetical words, Wathen allows the historical drowning to become a filter through which the image passes, or a storyline on which the photograph lies. Above the caption, the woman’s tight face implies anguish over the death of her son, and the man’s distracted posture takes on the connotation of turmoil. The couple inherits a narrative context so that, in their static image, complete strangers may find meaning.
Essays like Wathen’s aim to communicate meaningful ideas clearly, and to validate them using evidence and persuasive analysis. Just as the written essay stacks concepts and logical arguments, so also the photographic essay may string together series of images and captions in order to build its thesis. Because of its linear structure, the essay has often been equated with the formal proof, in which all statements line up to reach the final theorem. However, both words and images are saturated with diverging connotations, which may exclude one another in formal argument. This discredits a strictly mathematical treatment of the essay and suggests a broader definition. If the essay is redefined as the multifaceted viewpoint of the participant engaging in an ongoing discourse, then highly connotative words and images are not only welcome, but, moreover, they are necessary for the discussion.
In theory, the essay aims to represent reality, but unavoidable limitations restrict the scope of its representation. To remain relevant, the essay must contextualize itself within ongoing subjective interpretation. In his Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation, author W. J. T. Mitchell notes the essay’s “incomplete ‘attempt’ … to get as much of the truth about something into its brief compass as the limits of space and writerly ingenuity will allow” (289). The essay may circumscribe truth through presumably objective, unambiguous “realism” and “scientificity.” Yet, because of the essay’s “inability to appropriate everything,” it must ultimately orient itself within a larger contextual framework (289). Contextualization occurs whenever connotative references diverge and extend into unrepresented history. Informal and personal essays orient themselves within a private “autobiography” by working with inevitable connotations in memory (289). Through a similar use of connotation, published verbal and photographic essays must orient themselves in what essayist and art critic John Berger would call “social and political memory” (About Looking 58).
Berger’s term, “memory,” adequately communicates the dynamic function of the essay’s context. It implies a web of associations, as opposed to a narrow, linear proof. Berger explains that “memory works radially” by making “an enormous number of associations all leading to the same event” (About Looking 60). In a similar yet inverted manner, the public essay’s connotations extend “radially” in all directions, and into its surrounding context. Unlike that of the private essay, the context of the public essay is not found in the single story or voice. It is instead a “social and political” discourse between many voices, linked in a web of communication. The logical ground for this communication is the history of the discourse itself. In the verbal essay, the arrangement of certain words may connote a past argument in the discourse. When this is intentional, it is called a quotation or paraphrase (commonly used in the academic essay). An analogous placement of photographs can connote a meaningful context for the photographic essay.
Regardless of intentionality, photographs will connote a certain historical argument, position, or pattern. Because photographs are, in the words of Susan Sontag, “something directly stenciled off the real,” photographs will always connote “pure denotation” as the “relic of an occasion” (Sontag qtd. In About Looking 50; Mitchell 284). But the distinguishing measure of the photographic essay is an acknowledgement of its inevitable connotations and an ability to meaningfully communicate new ideas within the context thereby established.
In “Kentucky 1975-78,” T.M. Wathen acknowledges in his subjects a diverse range of relationships with their pasts, and he explores its variations. For Wathen’s Couple Holding a Portrait, the car and the framed photograph are both relics of a time when their son was still alive. Understanding the couple’s devotion to their history, Wathen depicts their purposeful preservation of its relics. The couple stands where the inoperative car is displayed, while they literally support and uphold the memory of their son. In the case of his Coal Miners, Wathen acknowledges an inevitable connotation to the past. His workers hold the remains of organic life, which has decomposed into coal. Wathen depicts in their posture varied relationships with the past, as two miners look down in fascination, feeling it with their bare hands, but a third looks away, casual and unconcerned. Wathen finds the tourists of My Old Kentucky Home within an architectural relic of their history and, in their scattered, inattentive gazes, shows their blatant indifference. And although littered paper remnants of the Kentucky Derby surround them, Wathen’s Couple Attending seem not only disinterested in, but also completely oblivious to what has recently occurred. Disconnected, they remain fixed to a private present.
By repeatedly casting his subjects in relation to their pasts, T. M. Wathen has acknowledged his context, and by depicting the range of these relationships, he has worked through its dynamics. Both steps are necessary for building a successful photo-essay. His context maintains the relevance of his essay, and its complexity encourages and drives his analysis. To communicate his analysis, it is necessary for Wathen to draw clear associations between data points. Such associations allow him to argue his subject’s function, the human dependence upon history. According to John Berger, “meaning is the result of understanding functions” (About Looking 51). Therefore, the value of his photo-essay, like any essay, depends, in part, on the clarity of his analytical associations.
T. M. Wathen builds analytical associations through his consistent use of captions and visual stereotypes in “Kentucky 1975-78.” In Postmaster and Offspring, gruff, dirty men are depicted upon an uneven, wooden porch, slouched before a decrepit, old post office in some rural wasteland. Wathen’s caption confirms the stereotypical suggestions of worthlessness and inhumanity by using the animal term ‘offspring.’ Wathen’s analysis speaks through his presentation of the photograph itself. The flat brick wall and vague, hazy background connote an intense lack of depth and dimension. In conjugation with his established context, Wathen makes an association between devalued life and the minimization of background or history. He reiterates this association in the Opening Night at the Disco. Again, the subjects slouch before a flat brick wall, exhibiting the degradation of the homosexual or genderqueer. In contrast with the freedom and exhilaration connoted by an “opening night,” Wathen’s mild and subdued subjects are fixed and moreover bound to a present without past. By juxtaposing his subjects’ depraved conditions, Wathen has effectively analyzed the vital function of human history.
Wathen’s photo-essay is successful in its ability to work through the connotations of his medium in order to participate in contextual discourse. In his photographs and text, he has offered a theory to explain one aspect of the human value system. An assertive offering is only one side of the dialogue exposed by the public essay, however. A truly collaborative public essay will also allow for a degree of continuation or response. It will foster further participation in the ongoing discussion of which it is only a part. In the ideal photo-essay, the inevitable “language of images” is purposefully used “to understand the history of which we [the communicators] can become the active agents” (Ways of Seeing 33, emphasis mine). Series of photographs will allow communicators to actively engage with the context they connote and establish.
Like context, the potential for vital engagement comes from the essay’s connotations, which expose vulnerability for critical evaluation. According to Mitchell, “the best [photo-essays] … make the instrumentality of both writing and photography” not only serve in “advancing its banner,” but also in “subjecting it to criticism” (288). If context is the essay’s firmly established narrative history, then such criticism is the essay’s narrative potential: its future and its application. Some photo-essays may strategically use text to “subvert” its images, or to “call them into question” (Mitchell 286). But the inverse is also possible. Images themselves may criticize or even resist the surrounding text, allowing for a “kind of independence” between them that will sustain continued discussion.
T. M. Wathen demonstrates an engaging independence in his Couple Holding a Portrait of Their Son. It begins with the incongruity of the dog, seen as the blur of hindquarters and tail, exiting the frame. Because the dog lies in the elderly man’s gaze, it makes the significance of his turned head ambiguous. A simple edit would have removed the ambiguity, but Wathen preserves it, allowing his reader to consider an alternative explanation for the man’s distraction. If sorrow is not the only explanation for his posture, then implied sorrow in the woman’s face might also require reevaluation. Wathen’s caption is “subverted,” as it becomes possible to view the couple through a lens of strength, or at least resilience. And from this insight, a plurality of narrative directions may be acknowledged. The couple might hopelessly collapse under the pain of their past; they might cope individually; or they might even find strength together as they build upon their shared history.
The strength of the essay is its ability to build upon shared history, communicated across many voices in ongoing public discourse. To do so, the well-crafted essay employs the inevitable connotations of its language to actively orient itself within a web of past arguments. It will acknowledge its history by starkly, and even exaggeratedly emphasizing certain recurring patterns in its material. It will build assertive claims, associations, and analysis upon this context. The verbal essay can accomplish this by juxtaposing sources and drawing metaphors through the connotations of written language. The photographic essay can do the same by juxtaposing both text and images, working through their independent connotations as well as their dynamic interactions to establish a unique and complex perspective. In each mode, the connotations of language are tied to the essay’s efficacy. But only in the photo-essay’s unique dynamic, established between the distinct languages of image and text, does the potential for internal resistance arise. This resistance exposes the active dialogue in which the photo-essay communicates, and propels the reader to engage in its discussion.
Berger, John, Sven Blomberg, Chris Fox, Michael Dibb, and Richard Hollis. Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation, n.d. Print.
Berger, John. About Looking. New York: Pantheon, 1980. Print.
Mitchell, W. J. T. Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1994. Print.