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  • Writer's pictureGary Gruber

Which Came First, The Photographer or the Photograph?

Most photographs convey something to the viewer. Whether it be an emotion, a personal link to past history, or a dramatic revelation along the lines of a documentation of current events, all photos are ripe for interpretation. Some photos are ambiguous enough that they can conjure up some pretty bizarre initial thoughts without some sort of explanation:

If I didn’t tell you that this was “Men’s Day at the Golden Door Spa”, where would your mind be wandering right now?

Photographers certainly can steer a user towards a specific interpretation of an image through the use of a suggestive title. But what happens when a series of candid (unposed) images all relate a similar emotion or ‘meaning’?

I ran into this situation in Paris in 1970. Not speaking French and spending less than 1% of my time interacting with anyone in the city, something began to congeal when I saw roughly the same scene played out over and over. If there is any truism I learned the hard way on my journey for the past 50 years, it’s that you can’t go looking for a specific photo, you just have to be ready when it appears. Doctor Richards (We used to call him TR – Thomas Richards), my mentor and muse at Syracuse University had a favorite expression when asked “How can you take (this or that) kind of photo?” His response was always” “Be there, and F/8”. F/8 refers to the aperture control on a camera lens. The larger the number, the more depth of field (the more area of the photo that will be in focus regardless of where the camera’s rangefinder is set).

What he was saying was: Pre-set your camera to maximize the image quality in anticipation of that ephemeral moment that appears and disappears all too quickly. Most of the time that I have ‘gone on the hunt’ for a specific photo, I have failed. If you are diligent and prepared, eventually the picture you are looking for will drop into your lap.

But what I encountered in Paris that summer was different. There seemed to be something in the air wherever I went. I kept seeing the same photo presented to me over and over, and it was disturbing, to say the least:

I think the emotions conveyed by these images are relatively clear. While I absolutely abhor ‘explaining’ a photo to anyone under any circumstances, as I reflect on these shots some 50 years later, I am unable to articulate why a seemingly heavy blanket of despair hung over these people. I was not personally involved in any sort of emotional crisis during my journey so there is nothing apparently conjoined between me and my subjects at that point in time.

Very often photographers will use their camera as some sort of cathartic tool to expose and/or purge themselves during an emotional moment in their lives. Most of the times I have seen this done the images were so heavy handed, so dripping with excess baggage, that the photos sunk under the weight of the attempt to ‘teach’ the viewer something.

I did encounter similar moments in Germany; but for me, the photos tended to carry one into a different type of despair – if that’s the appropriate word here. The French did not seem to embody the sheer hopelessness I saw in Germany, an angst that was palpable and hung like a very heavy mantle wherever I went.

Certainly, the entire notion of being in a foreign country has a lot to do with it. Every culture, especially those that embody a familiar national pride, will share a somewhat common mindset that inhabits the psyche. It probably does not require overstating. The Germans were very literal people with almost no sense of humor. The French were easily enraged over the slightest slight, and the Italians bore a positive attitude that was so infectious, that even the simplest interaction evoked an unmistakable joie de vivre that was instantly contagious.

Perhaps I was viewing normal. Perhaps I was imposing my own prejudices. Either way there existed an uneasy current of some common emotional response that I still find mildly disturbing. I guess when I returned to NYC and saw scenes like this, I was better able to empathize with the people who wandered in front of my lens:

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