President Salvador Allende and first lady Hortensia Bussi on the balcony of the presidential palace La Moneda, 1970

The first (and oldest) photograph in the book shows Salvador Allende and his wife on a balcony in La Moneda, the presidential palace, waving handkerchiefs to a virtual multitude, where the photographer has submerged himself so that we might be the silent beneficiaries of that trivial gesture, maybe done enthusiastically in front of an exhilarated crowd; but in the light of events, with that tragic force that photography always reveals (its revenge against the superficiality with which it is used), it rather seems that Allende and his wife are saying goodbye. We will not see them again in the book. The photograph proves painful beyond any ideology.

Marco Antonio De La Parra, “Fragments of a Self-Portrait” Chile from within, ed. Susan Meisalas (1990).

Watching a 1982 interview with Garry Winogrand on Bill Moyers, I was struck by this bit:

A picture is about what’s photographed and how that exists in the photograph – so that’s what we’re talking about. What can happen in a frame? Because photographing something changes it. It’s interesting, I don’t have to have any storytelling responsibility to what I’m photographing. I have a responsibility to describe well.

– –

The fact that photographs — they’re mute, they don’t have any narrative ability at all. You know what something looks like, but you don’t know what’s happening, you don’t know whether the hat’s being held or is it being put on her head or taken off her head. From the photograph, you don’t know that. A piece of time and space is well described. But not what is happening.
I think that there isn’t a photograph in the world that has any narrative ability. Any of ‘em. They do not tell stories – they show you what something looks like. To a camera. The minute you relate this thing to what was photographed — it’s a lie. It’s two-dimensional. It’s the illusion of literal description. The thing has to be complete in the frame, whether you have the narrative information or not. It has to be complete in the frame. It’s a picture problem. It’s part of what makes things interesting.

Increasingly, I’m obsessed with the idea that making sense happens over time. Sense isn’t necessarily tied only to a story or a narrative—it is dangerous to confuse “unfolding across time” with narrative. Not all information or communication is in the form of stories. Often, it’s a “picture problem.” I think that is an egregious error that communications scholars commonly make; they imply that the picture itself is a neutral canvas painted solely through a surrounding narrative.

I think that this is perhaps why the “natural habitat” of the photograph evolved first in the form of the book rather than the exhibition. It’s a way of sequencing them, impressing a narrative quality (or not) on them. People like stories. Photographs aren’t necessarily related to stories. They are related to people or things. But his does not suggest that photographs exist in the absence of time—they are infused with, composed by, and permeated with time. And most importantly, it takes time and distance to make sense out of images.

I went to a gallery talk at MNCP last Thursday by Arlene Gottfried. It was amazing to me how the same question was repeated twice: “What are you working on now?” Gottfried had shown four separate projects in slides, most of which had unfolded over decades. She replied: “I’m not really working on anything at the moment.” (twice). Looking at an article about her, I think the real gist of what meant Thursday had already been said in 1998:

Apart from specific magazine assignments, AG has never been capable of setting out to do anything remotely like and [sic] essay about the people she photographs. Rather, she has been taking photographs in the course of living her life and over time, a long time, accumulated vast numbers of images that seem of their own accord to have coalesced around a particular topic.

The phrase, it’s not a job, it’s a way of life certainly applies. And life unfolds over time, much like a song. Not all songs tell stories, either. It was wonderful to hear Gottfried sing; not the usual sort of thing one experiences in a gallery.

But her book Midnight deceives. The dust jacket suggests it is “A visual journal of simple yet gripping portraits revealing the ravages—and redemption— of time.” It is arranged in chronological order, but it is not a story. Midnight is still alive (at least she hopes). He has disappeared for a long time; Gottfried hasn’t seen him for over six months. As Winogrand implies, whatever “redemption” appears in these photographic descriptions must be an illusion supplied by the viewer. The facts of the story remain undisclosed.