Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Invisible Shutter - Dater's Hands on Glass

Judy Dater is a West Coast photographer who's concentrated on portraiture and feminism. Themes of masking and disclosure appear frequently in her work. She sees photography as a provocative act, and her pictures often seem deliberately troubling or disruptive. 

The image below, which I thought to comment on, I was surprised to discover, is the first photo on her website here


Despite the intention in Dater's work, I'd like to consider this image as a distinct, separate occasion, apart from the place it may hold in the sequence or context of her other work. I think it's a powerful image, though part of its power seems to be a little gimmicky. 

The natural assumption is that this is a photograph taken from inside an automobile, against the backdrop of the arid desert country of the American Southwest. It's an "idea" photograph, a conceptual still life that is more about the implications of its set-up, than any purely pictorial interest in the frame. It isn't a candid shot, a moment stolen from the accidental tapestry of happenstance. The landscape in the background is blurry, because the point of the picture is the two hands wrapped around the window-glass. The background suggests a remote point in the outback, and the occasion is presumably somewhere along the road where the vehicle has been parked. A window like this probably belongs to an SUV, or other utility vehicle, since ordinary passenger cars don't have sliding or side-moving windows. Of course, this could be a "staged" shot, simply a plate of glass the photographer set up for the exposure, since we don't have any frame, no reference for what the glass is attached to. It's even possible the shot is taken from inside a house or other structure. But none of this speculation really matters to the meaning of the image.

All photography consists of a conceptual window. The window needn't be rectangular. Lenses, after all, are circular, and circular imagery is nothing new. And there are round windows too. But the metaphor still applies. Looking through the ground glass of a camera is the same as looking through a window. Seeing through a lens is what seeing is: Our eyes are lenses, focused towards the rear of our eyeball's inner lining, a sensitive field of receptors which transmits the visual data to our brain via the optic nerve. The camera lens is an eye. No matter what we see, we see through a translucent interposed membrane. Clear window glass affords the same visual facility which the eye, or the camera lens does. Transparent glass lets light and color through, but blocks matter. Glass is a brittle solid, crystalline in structure, which fractures or shears along its weakest integration. 

The hands in the photograph seem to be pulling the glass to the right, but of course the hands may simply be holding on, not pulling. The hands tell us that half the photographic rectangle is behind a sheet of glass, while the other half isn't. Metaphorically speaking, the hands are pulling the glass back from the viewer's field of vision. But the sense of revelation is only symbolic, since the glass is clear enough that were the hands not there, we could be fooled into thinking we were looking only through the camera lens, not through another "layer" of clear glass. The edge of the glass is a dark line in the middle of the photo, which--except for the hands--would not allow us to perceive the glass as glass. We know the hands are holding glass, because we can see the compressed skin of the palms and fingertips on the opposite surface side. 

What exactly does the picture tell us? Are the hands trying to pull the invisible translucence of glass aside, like a curtain revealing a clearer, truer reality behind? Do the hands symbolize some kind of victimization or confinement, like prisoners or refugees trapped inside a compound or container? Are the hands a kind of wretched, horrific striving for release, or freedom? 

What is most striking about the image is the tension that is set up between the view we have, and the meaning of the hands "pulling" the picture's symbolic "curtain" aside. There's no visual queue to clarify what we're supposed to think about the meaning of the image, so it floats in a speculative limbo, neither comforting or threatening. It's a meditation on the meaning of disclosure and permission, what it means to be permitted to see. There's also the irony of translucency, reminding us that what we think we're seeing may not be as "clear" as we are given to know. If the hands belong to the photographer, the message might be a desire to show, to demonstrate, to reveal. To remove boundaries and interpositions from our vision, to free us to perceive the truths right in front of our eyes.

"Unscrew the locks from the doors !
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs !"
                                                                   --Walt Whitman

No comments: