For the fraction of the second when light is exposed to film or electronic sensor, the world stands still; the subject is arrested; the moment stands is sharp clarity instead of motions blurring from one scene to the next. And when looking at others’ work published on the shelves of library, walls of museum, or a personal collection; or the albums of one’s own family or those of a friend, an occasional image has the power to transport you back to another language, society, location or point in time -whether it is one’s own narrative, that of someone familiar, or belonging to a person unknown. Perhaps there is a technique to make nearly all images return to living things, rather than to remain static and disconnected to the preoccupations and ambitions of our present moment?
Watching an out-of-date, out-of-fashion movie or recorded broadcast source may at first give one a smug feeling of being modern and not tied to the old-fashioned ways; a feeling of superiority for a life today of possibilities that must seem more vivid, consequential and available to us than we assume was true of those older times. Just so, the same psychological distancing typically occurs when viewing something (old or new) not in our own native language. Somehow we take ourselves and our habits and life chances to be normal and all others to be deficient to the extent they fall short to our standard of practice. But something magical happens when we let go of our presumed normality and (moral) superiority. Then the foreign scenes that flicker before us become plausible, real, and perhaps worth aspiring to; we join the game and seek to know the rules of the unfamiliar culture, language and society. Then the black and white drama of our parent’s or grandparent’s moment in history no longer seems quaint, ineffectual, or unimportant. Instead we can begin to identify with the characters and allow that they –in their time and style and historical moment– had as much gumption, ambition, and grace as we attribute to our present time. In particular there is something important about the eyes; “the window to the soul,” as has been observed by others.
So whether the photo is a barely-dressed person – youth, prime of life, or frail; or whether the photo is a heavily dressed person – young, middle, elder, it matters not if their skin and hair and gender mirrors our own, or is alien to our own place in life. No matter, It is still possible non-verbally and powerfully to lock into a shared human identity that transcends decade or social status. The secret lies in the eyes, a certain look of strong intention and presumption of competence in the scope of the person’s own cultural and social landscape to get things done that they have learned need their attention; their confident knowledge of what represents a risk and what indicates an opportunity; what is normal and proper and to be desired or expected.
In other words, as a viewer of present-day or distant still images, the trick to giving the frozen moment some life and weight of meaning is to extend to the subjects in the scene that same urgency and purpose that animate your own waking moments now. Look at the persons in the scene and tell yourself they, no less and no more than yourself, have about them a quickness of spirit and earnestness of heart. When you have given the subject in the image such life-like meaning, then they cease to be 2-dimensional representations and they take on a personal presence; someone with name and face, someone with relatives, someone with a past and ambitions for a path for the future. Call this look in the person’s eye “mien.” It is a meaningful look – not some secret shared between the person in the frame and you, the viewer of the image, but a look that carries meaning and future intention. Breathing life into the 1/250th of a second just takes some practice. It starts with a closer look at the eyes; not to dismiss the person as remote instant in time or distant in culture, different to one’s own, but just the opposite; to invite yourself into that person’s time and place and find meaning on the playing field they actively inhabited before and after the shutter release was pressed.
It is facile to gloss over important differences in rhythm, texture, taste and language of a time or place and declare “every one is the same, deep down inside.” And yet going partway along that line of reasoning is what it takes to make a flat photography take on 3-dimensional presence again. There is an equally simplistic pigeon hole for “one of us” or “one of them” to overcome. The true vision is somewhere in-between, sort of like DNA of human populations around the planet: almost entirely the same, but the differences that do exist are important to acknowledge; not as barriers, but as part of one’s definition and sense of self, as well as sense of other.
And so when viewing (or making) photographs, it is not that all subjects are deep down inside made of the same assumptions and ideals as we ourselves; nor the opposite extreme, that the people are unconnected and irrelevant to our own trajectories. Instead it is good to get past whatever differences at first signal to you they are not like you; “not from around here.” But bridging the surface differences of time or culture, you then become part of that subject in the frame, and they also can inhabit your time and place, right now. The result is the frozen images thaw out and once more come alive with possibility; they are not relics, or curious artifacts dead to us. As the distance between self and photo disappears they become living in one’s world. But the reverse is true, too: we viewers of today touch this world of frozen moments, since one day others will view photos in which we are the 2 dimensional, distant image.